Lifeline Fund helps clients weather economic downturn


When Michael pulled into the parking lot of Jewish Family & Children’s Service to apply for financial assistance, the strange irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him — especially as he stepped out of the new luxury car he was now unable to make payments on.

“What’s happened over the past year has affected everyone from people making $10 an hour to executives,” said Michael, who didn’t wish to be identified by his real name. “[JF &CS] just made me so comfortable in one of the most humiliating and embarrassing times of my life.”

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A member of the Jewish community who had spent much of his career making six figures in upper management, Michael was the sort of person most charities are used to targeting as a potential donor.

But after being laid off late last year, he found himself on the other end of the equation. He’s far from alone. Out of resources and in danger of defaulting on bills, Michael is representative of the new face of need bred by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. Driven, career-oriented, educated, successful, they’ve frequently never been out of work before – and certainly never suspected they’d find themselves jobless, without savings, drowning in a sea of house and car payments that are relics of a lifestyle they cannot escape but can no longer support.

“They really are people who have done everything right,” said Fran Kravitz, the financial assistance social worker who counseled Michael. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve been responsible and through no fault of their own, just because of the economy, they were downsized.”

It’s exactly that demographic that the Jewish Federation is aiming to help with the Lifeline Fund, a new initiative administered through JF &CS. The fund, which began in December, provides grants and interest-free loans to members of the Jewish community. Recipients can receive a maximum of $5,000 in grant assistance spread over a six-month period. Since December, $176,000 has gone out to 60 Jewish families, according to figures released by the Federation. Almost all of that money has been in the form of grants.

The idea originally grew out of a much smaller initiative designed to provide assistance and loans but Lifeline represented a substantial augmentation of the older program using a combination of existing endowment funds, unrestricted monies and targeted fundraising efforts. Originally capitalized with about half a million dollars, the fund was designed to operate outside the Federation’s normal allocation stream, so it wouldn’t adversely affect other constituent agencies, said Federation executive vice president Barry Rosenberg. Rosenberg said that now the fund is “just about at the bottom of the pot.”

“We’re at the point of trying to figure out how to replenish the Lifeline Fund so we can continue to provide service,” he said. “Our initial projection was that this would take us for about six or seven months. We’re pretty close in terms of where that projection is.”

Another goal of Lifeline has been to support the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. According to the Federation, more than $28,000 has been collected through hundreds of individual gifts as part of a tribute campaign.

Rosenberg estimates that the grant program is seeing a request rate of $5,000-$10,000 per week and the Federation is hoping to pull in another quarter million dollars to keep the program running. He said that the community has been very responsive but tough economic times, when programs like this are needed most, are precisely when funds dry up.

“It’s been a very good response but we’re in a moment when fundraising in general is down,” he said. “We’re struggling with our annual campaign. This is another ask layered on all of the other asks. It makes it a very, very challenging time.”

Part of the issue is that half of the original half-million dollar pool of money was hardwired to the loan program and can’t be used to fund the much more heavily utilized grants. Only one loan has been recorded since Lifeline’s inception. Rosenberg said organizers are still searching for “the right formula” to make the loans more popular but notes that it’s difficult to get recipients who already have more financial obligations than they can handle to accept further commitments. Lou Albert, executive director of JF &CS, agrees.

“We can understand that, because when people are struggling financially, they’re not looking to do anything to increase their debt, even with a no-interest loan,” Albert said.

On the other hand, Albert said demand for grants has been steadily rising since the program began.

“It’s interesting. Back in December when this started, the number of families coming forward was very small,” he said. “As time has gone by it’s growing. I don’t know if that’s because people are finding that financially their situation is getting worse the longer they are unemployed or whether it’s that more people are finding themselves out of work.”

Sometimes it can take awhile for the reality of job loss to set in. Albert said that some families may not always immediately realize the seriousness of their situation. It’s only over time, as months pass and savings drain away, that the full impact hits. Worse, middle and upper income families can be harder hit because their expenses are higher, limiting the jobs they can take to realistically make ends meet. Meanwhile, the collapse of the housing market has made it tough — sometimes impossible — to shed expenses by selling one’s home, a traditional escape route for families facing financial disaster.

“There’s a period of shock. Then people look around and quickly find out that they need to make some compromises,” Albert said. “That’s very difficult. These are not families that can manage taking a minimum wage job. Not that they wouldn’t be willing to but it won’t help.”

Kravitz, one of two social workers at JF &CS who work with recipients, said the first step in the process is to meet with an applicant, go over his or her financial information and then assess what the needs are. After that, goals can be set and a workable plan devised to make those goals a reality.

“If it was just handing out money, a bank teller could do that,” she said. “There’s a reason why social workers are doing it. That’s because we really care about the person and we want to be there for them, not just financially but in a real psychological way to help them get through this and improve the quality of their life.”

Sometimes the problems recipients face go deeper than their finances. Albert and Rosenberg both said that the advantage to having the program based out of JF &CS is that the agency is well equipped to assess the full range of needs a client may have.

Michael can attest to that. He said that Kravitz quickly saw that his job loss had put a stress on his mental state.

“I went into a depression and Fran caught that pretty early,” said Michael, who was already under treatment by a physician. “In meeting with her during those six months, she was very astute to my behavior and when I hit bottom where I said ‘I give up, I don’t know what to do anymore,’ she definitely made sure to ask if I was seeing a doctor and on medication.”

Michael said that today things are looking far better. He has finally found work and the family’s financial situation is stabilizing. He is quick to credit Lifeline, not just for the money he received, but for the way Kravitz helped bring his life into focus during a trying period, giving him ideas, connecting him with vocational resources and even making personal phone calls to potential employers on his behalf.

“You don’t just show up, say ‘I’m in financial hardship,’ fill out a piece of paper and get a check,” he said. “You really have to have a plan and they work with you to create that plan.”

And for Michael, that plan has one inescapable ending.

“Once we get ahead of the curve, there’s no doubt that the charity I will fund is exactly the one that helped me,” he said.

For more information on the Lifeline program, call 314-993-1000.