When this recession is a memory, the Jewish community’s unemployed and their children — just like the rest of the country — will still feel the psychic impact of prolonged, desperate days of job hunting and scraping for house payments or rent. Making it worse will be the injury to their pride, as people with a distinct work ethic face the humbling experience of explaining their plight to family and friends.
“Long after the end, families will be shell-shocked,” said Margaret L. Avineri, director of clinical and private care services for the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles.
I talked to Avineri this month about the Jewish unemployed.
Jewish Los Angeles’ reaction to the recession is a fascinating story of how a community responds to an unexpected and wide-ranging need. The story has been well told in The Jewish Journal in articles by Brad A. Greenberg in 2008 and Julie Gruenbaum Fax in 2009.
As the recession continued, only slightly abating, I was interested to learn about how these difficult times will impact families in the future. Scholars are beginning to focus on that aspect of the recession, most notably in a report, “No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment,” recently released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development of Rutgers University.
The report said, “Despite positive signs of economic growth and a rising stock market, millions of unemployed Americans see no end to the Great Recession that wrecked their finances and threw their lives into turmoil. ... [T]he vast majority of jobless Americans have not found new jobs. When they did find work, all but a few took pay cuts and lost benefits. Among those still searching for work — many for more than a year — are millions who have never been without a job and who have at least a college education.”
Since Fax wrote her story for The Journal last July, the situation in Los Angeles has worsened. While calls for assistance to a JFS helpline have decreased from a monthly high of 515 in July 2009 to nearly 400 this April, requests for assistance at a multipurpose center for older adults rose 38 percent this past year. Nancy Volpert, director of public policy for JFS, told me that a substantial number of these calls were recession related.
The unemployment rate in Los Angeles County has gone up from 11.3 to 12.4 percent in the past year. Joblessness has increased in finance, insurance, the mortgage business, real estate, technology and other occupations where Jews work.
As Greenberg and Fax reported, JFS and several other agencies provide assistance ranging from food and cash grants to intensive counseling and vocational advice. They are gathered under the umbrella of the Jewish Family Relief Network. In addition to family service, it includes the Jewish Free Loan Association, Jewish Vocational Services, the BJE and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I talked to Avineri about the emotional toll on the unemployed and their families. Like everyone else, I know recession victims. My former employer, the Los Angeles Times, has ruthlessly cut its staff, laying off people or forcing them out through “buyouts.” Finding another job in the declining journalism business is daunting, and I have many angry and worried friends looking for work. I imagine these tough years will become part of their family narratives, remembered by children and grandchildren.
Many of JFS’ clients are in the same boat — once secure in businesses that have shrunk or failed. “This is you and me,” Avineri said, “people who were successful prior to this.”
Job loss means more than scrambling for house payments. It means dealing with family and friends in a society where success is expected. It means telling the rabbi that you can’t afford synagogue dues and asking your children’s Jewish day school for financial assistance. It means, at the age of 40 or 50, giving up the work that has defined your life and looking for something new. In some cases, it means, after years of donating to Jewish community organizations, asking them for assistance.
When people call the help line, 877-ASK-4-JFS, Avineri said, they are steered to a variety of services, and one of the most important is intensive counseling. In counseling, the clients are often asked, “Have you thought of doing something else?”
“What is most confounding is the person who will not consider another kind of work,” Avineri said, “one not as lucrative.”
The counseling is also designed to push the unemployed to take a deep look into themselves, Avineri said, with questions such as “How flexible and amenable are you as a person to change?” or “When forces beyond your control change your life, who are you?”
Those who can’t deal with the new turn in their lives can fall into family violence and substance abuse. “The flip side is that with good assistance and support, you can prevail,” Avineri said.
As is the case with other social service agencies in the recession, JFS measures its accomplishments in small steps.
Here’s one: Both parents lost their jobs. They had school-age children. JFS found them a rent-free house, donated by a member of the Jewish community. A cash grant paid pressing bills. Most important, the depressed and frightened father received intensive counseling from an experienced therapist. Jewish Vocational Services found him a job in another part of the county. “He felt transformed,” Avineri said.
When the recession struck, the national safety net, never strong, had many holes in it. All through the community, free medical clinics, vocational services and multiservice organizations stepped in. As the recession begins to ease, it is easy to forget the unemployed. But as Avineri reminded me, “The need is still there.”
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).