Moving people off welfare requires jobs, assistance

By now it has become clear that thousands of Bay Area Jews will be affected by the changes in federal law that, in President Clinton's words, "end welfare as we know it."

Paula, a JFCS client, is a 27-year-old single mother from an Orthodox family who left an abusive marriage. She has been receiving welfare while she struggles to pull her life together.

Paula is enrolled in a job training program, and her daughter receives subsidized child care. With welfare reform, Paula knows that her benefits may run out before she is able to complete her training program and find a job.

Eighty-eight-year-old Abraham, a newcomer from Russia, is a student in JFCS' citizenship program. He is frightened he will lose his $625 a month federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because, under the new law, legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens no longer qualify for aid.

He has tried — but failed — to pass the citizenship exam several times. His only daughter, with an income of just $22,000 a year, is in no position to offer more than token support.

Sarah, 12 years old, has cerebral palsy. She receives SSI benefits for children with disabilities, which pay for her home care so her father, a single parent, can work. Sarah and her father are both extremely worried that their family will no longer be covered under the strict new SSI guidelines for children with disabilities.

Roughly 45,000 Bay Area Jews live below the federal poverty level. Many are old. Some have disabilities. Most are children and families. Nearly half of the families seeking help from the Jewish community each year are eligible for public benefits. Under the new welfare law, they are about to have the safety net pulled out from under them.

In the short run, the Paulas, Abrahams and Sarahs among us will ask for our help at the most fundamental level. And we will help them simply stay alive by giving them food and a roof over their heads. We will help them become citizens so they can receive government assistance if they need it. And we will guide them through their personal struggles in a changing world.

But the much needed and long-term solutions to the problem of welfare are those that sustain people throughout their lives. And solutions require more than just compassion and emergency aid. For struggling families on welfare, becoming self-sufficient as quickly as possible is the key to survival.

Economists estimate that California needs approximately 1 million new jobs if we are going to help people make the transition from welfare to work. Where are these jobs going to come from?

Perhaps surprisingly, at least some will come from community organizations like JFCS, which have initiated economic development programs to help create jobs and the chance for self-sufficiency.

One of our community's longstanding economic development programs, Utility Workshop, was founded in the 1940s to provide jobs for refugees fleeing Hitler. Now, 50 years later, JFCS' Utility Workshop is still creating jobs — with medical benefits — for people who otherwise would be on public aid.

Given the critical need to move people from welfare to work as quickly as possible, our community is seizing every opportunity to create even more jobs.

A recent federal grant will enable us to provide additional jobs at Utility Workshop. Another private grant will help us train home care workers, and a new project called Cartridge King, which remanufactures laser printer cartridges, makes it possible for us to train people for high-tech jobs. But these efforts are just the small beginning in a long and difficult process called welfare reform.

The enormous demands on our community — for emergency assistance, citizenship preparation, counseling, jobs and training for thousands of people — test our conscience as Jews and force us to question our priorities. Should we care first for the old or the young? Should we provide food first or teach Torah? Should we fund Jewish education or social services?

Some argue that our most important communal task now is to foster Jewish continuity through Jewish culture and study. Others insist that basic survival needs come first. Both sides reply that limited resources make it necessary for us to choose between two sacred trusts — our responsibility to care for the poor and our responsibility for educating the next generation.

But that choice is no choice at all. Our real task is to strengthen our resolve and avoid false dichotomies so we can accomplish both of these essential functions. In fact they are inseparable, two parts of an integrated mosaic we lovingly call "community."

What better way to enhance our prospects for continuity than to turn this period of social change into an opportunity to integrate Jewish theory and practice, showing our children what it really means to be Jews by involving them in community service. Only if we act — and teach our children to act — from Jewish values, will they learn that being Jewish has value.

History will judge us. The real test of Jewish continuity will be in how our institutions care for all who seek help and all who seek learning.

Because, now and in the future, being a Jew will be measured not just by the services we attend — but by the services we perform.