You’re not imagining it…the sky really is falling

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By: Robert Sussman

The results of the recent Affordable Jewish Life survey show that the financial strain being felt among community members is very real and many think that it’s only going to get worse

A few months back in our July issue (#97) in a feature story titled “Feeling the Pinch”, we profiled a couple of average, middle-class, Johannesburg Jewish families who have been increasingly taking financial strain over the last few years and introduced the community to a recently formed group[1], , Affordable Jewish Life (AJL), led by Paul Bacher, that was looking more closely at the issues at hand, trying to get a sense of how real the perceived financial crisis is and how widespread such financial strain is being felt within our community. Readers were asked to take a short survey on the AJL website, the purpose of which was to confirm the existence of the financial crisis. The survey was advertised via other traditional media in the Jewish community as well as through social media and via various community databases (shuls, schools, etc.). The survey received nearly 1100 responses, including significant amounts in each of the various age categories (25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54, 55 to 64, and 65+), which, according to the team of actuaries behind the survey, means that the survey results can be considered a representative sample of the general Johannesburg Jewish population. After carefully sorting through the data and eliminating any duplicate and incomplete answers, these actuaries have reviewed everything and the results are now being made available to the public.

Two thirds of the respondents believe that their current lifestyle is simply unsustainable and that their family’s financial stability is, or is likely to become, a problem in the near future. The top five reasons associated with the financial strain have been identified as: (1) kosher food prices, (2) Jewish day school tuition fees, (3) medical aid costs, (4) living in “Jewish” areas, and (5) limited employment opportunities. The majority of the respondents who identified kosher food prices and day school fees as the key contributors to their financial instability have the following profile: They are between the ages of 35 and 54; have 2 to 3 children; have both spouses working; have a comprehensive range medical aid; and live in a Jewish neighbourhood (such as Glenhazel, Sydenham, Oaklands, etc.).

More than half of the respondents indicated that their monthly income does not cover their monthly expenses and, of these, more than half do not pay their credit card balance every month. Thirteen percent of such respondents currently receive financial assistance from community organisations, while another 37% receive assistance from family and friends. In other words, a full 50% of this group of respondents are receiving financial aid each month! Forty percent of such respondents are unable to pay full school fees compared with 30% of overall respondents who indicated that they cannot pay full fees. It’s also worth noting that, over the last number of years, the subsidy levels in Johannesburg Jewish day schools have risen significantly faster than comparable overseas communities with similar numbers of both Jewish day schools and learners with, for example, an annual growth rate close to 4 times as much when compared to schools in Canada.

Real problems call for real solutions

While the results of the survey will come as no surprise to the many who have been increasingly struggling to make ends meet with each passing day, they are important, as it’s the first time that the existence and scope of the problem has been clearly documented beyond the occasional anecdotal story and, to some extent, quantified, making its existence an undeniable reality that community and business leaders must now face and find ways to address. From its inception, the AJL team has been working on providing solutions aimed at a variety of angles to bring down the high cost of Jewish living by focusing on each of the primary reasons (noted above). At the forefront of these efforts is the Food Solution, which has as its goal bringing down food and grocery bills as much as possible. The idea is largely inspired by an Israeli programme called Hamechirah Lakehillah Shelach (Your Community Sale), which services 40 000 families in 24 cities around Israel, harnessing the power of volume purchasing to create a sort of “buying consortium” that brings with it significant savings for consumers. To keep overhead low, the programme relies on using public areas as distribution points and has only a handful of paid staff, with a few hundred volunteers making up the bulk of the workforce.

With this idea in mind, the Food Solution team has been hard at work exploring setting up its own food distribution system that would offer the community access to some of the most oft-purchased products at significantly discounted prices, and passing the savings, which result from the lower price points that can be achieved via volume discounts, onto the consumer. The initiative would be not-for-profit with just a small margin added onto products in order to cover whatever running costs arise behind the scenes (transport, storage, refrigeration, management, etc.). A pilot programme, beginning with a few products, will likely be launched towards the beginning of February 2017. The hope is to keep adding to the list of products available, aiming for around 20 items, such as bread, milk, peanut butter, etc., and even eventually to include non-food staples, such as toiletries and dog food (a range that is large enough to cover at least 50% of one’s basic shopping needs).

For those struggling just to put food on the table, such news offers a glimmer of hope, both because the problem itself has now been documented and formally recognised and because there are people at work trying to help. It must be noted that everyone in the AJL group is a volunteer. Although the group is working as fast as it can, because of the voluntary nature of the work which can only take place during evenings and weekends, things naturally move slower than everyone would prefer. Please G-d, may these and other efforts speedily be brought to fruition and may they be tremendously successful. To stay up-to-date on the latest news from AJL, visit the website and register: www.affordablejewishlife.co.za – this will ensure that you are kept in the loop when each initiative launches. And if you are someone with expertise or have an idea that could add value to this group, please contact: info@affordablejewishlife.co.za

* Anonymous comments from survey responses

  • “The cost of living has become extremely expensive; even cutting down to the most basics it feels like one is drowning. I look for specials and we eat very simple basic meals (eg. soup, toasted sandwiches, fried/scrambled eggs, etc.).”
  • “The price of kosher food, particularly meat and chicken, is astronomical compared to non-kosher. It’s sad how some people have to eat non-kosher food because they can’t afford to purchase kosher food.”
  • “School fees are unaffordable. Fewer and fewer people each year are paying full school fees which burdens the remainder of the community, who are subsidising those fees without receiving any tax breaks for this charitable assistance.”
  • “Rising food costs and medical aid are increasing at a greater rate than our salaries…We can’t continue. We’re making Aliyah in January purely based on the cost of schooling and medical cover in South Africa.”
  • “There are many demands/expectations just because we live in the ‘right’ area. Many people don’t understand that one cannot always attend lectures, shiurim, dinners, charity events, etc. because of the cost involved.”
  • “It’s very important for children to attend Jewish day schools and get a Jewish upbringing. A family also has to have a private medical aid plus car insurance, and kids have to further their education. Basically, all this is out of reach for the average South African Jewish family! It is hard to keep up with the costs of running a kosher home.”
  1. Full Disclosure: The author is a member of this group.* Anonymous comment from a survey response

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