Jewish Journal


November 18, 2004

Agencies’ Funding Cuts Hurts Assistance for Southland Poor


Like their clients, several local Jewish agencies that serve the poor are struggling mightily.

Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and other Jewish nonprofits have recently lost millions in government funding at a time when demand for their services has skyrocketed. That has strained their ability to care for the indigent and threatens the health of existing programs.

To cite but a few examples, about 1,000 Jews a month visit the SOVA food bank for free groceries, double the number of just two years ago. And the Jewish Free Loan Association reported that loans for emergency shelter, food and other basic necessities have more than doubled in the past three years.

The extent of the situation is underlined by a recent study by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The report found that one in five Southland Jews, or 104,000 of 520,000, earns less than $25,000 annually, with 7 percent living below the poverty line.

The study also concluded that local Jews have a harder time eking out a living than their counterparts in most other U.S. cities. Los Angeles ranks only behind San Francisco and New York as the nation's most expensive city. The report said an ostensibly middle-class family of two working adults and three school-age children must earn nearly $80,000 to cover living and Jewish community expenses, which include religious school, two weeks of day camp and one month of residential camp.

In reaction to the worrisome trends, The Federation has redoubled its efforts to fund programs for the indigent. The Jewish philanthropic group has boosted its funding this year for antipoverty initiatives to $5.4 million. That's a $600,000 increase over last year, said Miriam Prum Hess, vice president for planning and allocations.

Among the recipients of The Federation's additional largesse are Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which received $50,000 to maintain its present attorney staffing levels, and Jewish Family Service (JFS), which got more than $18,000 for a program that helps mostly Jewish immigrants become citizens and continue to qualify for government assistance.

Despite the Federation's best efforts, the situation for the area's poor appears to have worsened. Government cutbacks have forced JVS and other Jewish nonprofits to eliminate programs or layoff workers. Unfortunately, Prum Hess said, The Federation's increased funding alone cannot replace lost county, state and federal funding.

A costly wish list of Federation anti-poverty programs, including more low-income housing and improving job placement for the working poor, remains largely unfunded, although the organization plans to target donors to support individual programs.

"This has become a priority issue across the board," said Michelle Wolf, Federation assistant director of planning and allocations. "So much more remains to be done to make sure that Jewish families have the basic necessities of life as well as entree into the Jewish community and its institutions."

Compounding matters, Jewish charities of all stripes have had increasing difficulty competing with mainstream charities for community dollars. In many instances, donations have remained flat or risen only negligibly in the past five years.

"I think a lot of Jewish donors think of themselves as American donors, which is one of the reasons why money doesn't always go to Jewish causes," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

This year, JVS has lost nearly $1 million in government dollars, almost 20 percent of its total budget, said Vivian Seigel, agency chief executive. Although JVS has increased fundraising by about $400,000, the government cutbacks have forced the organization to make painful choices, she said.

By year's end, JVS might have to eliminate a program that helps Jewish immigrants from Iran and the former Soviet Union acculturate to life in the United States. As recently as two years ago, the program offered English lessons, job training and employment leads to 1,000 impoverished Jews annually. However, Los Angeles County has since cut funding by half to $400,000 and could soon stop all contributions, Seigel said.

A much lauded JVS program that trained immigrants and refugees to become certified nurse assistants (CNAs) has fallen victim to the budget ax. Although JVS hopes to resurrect the nurses' program by partnering with a community college, it has yet to do so. That has left scores of would-be CNAs deeply disappointed -- and figuring out how to break the cycle of poverty.

"This is pulling the rug out from under some of the most vulnerable," Seigel said. "The cuts are absolutely devastating. At a time when the need is great, the resources continue to shrink. It's truly a struggle to be responsive to the needs of the community."

Like JVS, JFS has had to take painful decisions. Although JFS' overall funding has remained flat, increased health-care, liability insurance and pension costs have strained its finances, said Paul Castro, agency executive director.

Last year, JFS eliminated the equivalent of seven positions and had to scale back counseling and other programs that serve some of the region's most vulnerable people. Because of the cuts, the agency can no longer offer seminars at Conejo Valley synagogues on such subjects as treating depression or caring for aging parents. In addition, waiting times to see therapists increased at some Westside locations because of the cuts

JFS also faces a shortfall of up to $125,000 next year for an agency homeless shelter that houses 57 people in 15 apartments in the mid-Wilshire District. If JFS fails to raise that money by next summer, Castro said, the agency might reduce such client services as counseling or in-house child care.

On the bright side, JFS has so far escaped the massive cutbacks in government funding that have beset other nonprofits. But with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promising to close the state's budget deficit without raising taxes, Castro worries that his agency's luck might run out.

"We haven't got a clear indication of what his budget is going to be, but we're nervous," he said. "We're always nervous."

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