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A Coordinated Response to Jewish Poverty in Greater Boston

This essay is part of an ongoing series about Jewish poverty. Previous entries in the series can be found here, here, here and here.

In 2008, the national economy went into a freefall, and some still haven’t recovered. Having served as executive director of a small Boston-based Jewish organization that provides emergency assistance, I’ve seen firsthand the complexity that families face in navigating multiple agencies to find the services they need and public benefits for which they qualify. Added to all of that is the paralyzing power of shame that many feel when experiencing poverty, feelings which become amplified when asking for help within one’s own Jewish community.

In 2015 I joined the staff at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), determined to identify opportunities to deepen partnerships and bring the full power of our Jewish community to bear against these issues. In the past four years, CJP and our partner organizations have created the Anti-Poverty Initiative (API), a coordinated service model that helps people move from crisis to financial stability. Our work is ongoing, but the success we’ve had to date stems from a deeply collaborative approach with our partners, and from our focus on collecting, analyzing, and acting on data from our programs.

Greater Boston is fortunate to have five robust Jewish social service agencies that all play a role in supporting people who struggle with poverty. CJP worked closely with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Jewish Family Service of Metrowest Jewish Vocational Service, and Yad Chessed.

The first lesson we learned is that we lacked necessary data and we needed to prioritize funding for measurement and evaluation. We knew how many clients each agency was individually serving, but not the number of clients receiving help from multiple agencies. Gathering and interpreting this data took time, resources, and coordination between all the organizations. Ensuring client consent and confidentiality was a top priority. By understanding and honoring the experience of our clients, we can better design programmatic responses that will lead to more lasting solutions.

Importantly, we received an anchor gift of $1.5 million from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation for the project, with $300,000 per year allocated exclusively for measurement. This critical gift enabled us to place data at the forefront of this initiative, including hiring an independent demographer to de-duplicate and aggregate information, creating a centralized database, and investing in the measurement capacity of our partners.

With a system for gathering data in place, we began to see where some of the pain points were for clients. For too many people, it was difficult to access services across multiple agencies. Whether challenged by geographic access, or the daunting prospect of filling out multiple applications during a time when they were already stressed, many people were not using all the resources for which they qualified.

To alleviate this problem, we created a centralized intake across our social service agencies in the form of a 1-800 number we call “The CJP Warmline.” We believed that we could better support people by giving them a single number to call, a more streamlined intake process, and a lead caseworker who would coordinate a personalized action plan. Today, people can either contact the Warmline or an agency directly and experience a similar intake process and access to seamless, coordinated care.

Perhaps the most shocking thing we found through our work was that more than 50% of current clients live at less than 100% of the federal poverty level, with a median annual household income of approximately $14,000. However, within just six months of launching the API, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of people accessing unique resources across multiple agencies, demonstrating the impact of a coordinated and client-centric case management model.

An Economic Status Scale was created and piloted to provide a universal way to assess and track stability indicators for each client over time. The scale ranges from Crisis, to Vulnerable, Stable, and Self-Sustaining and is based on indicators such as housing stability, debt-to-equity ratio, income level, and household savings.

We learned that nearly 90% of families and individuals who enter our system in acute crisis show positive improvement toward stability within nine months. In the three years since our launch, the API has supported more than 2,900 households with resources that include emergency financial and food assistance, employment counseling, and case management among other vital services.

We also learned that customized employment assistance is very effective at getting people into new jobs; 68% of clients who receive employment support are placed within six months. Employment assistance is offered as one component of a data-informed, holistic approach that also includes case management and financial coaching. Since the system has been in place, our data collection revealed clusters of Jewish poverty in the suburbs, and so we directed support to those geographic areas.

From the data, we have identified some of the leading causes of financial distress. Surprisingly, lack of education does not appear to be a root problem in our Jewish community; more than 70% of currently served clients have a college degree or higher. However, mental health and housing instability are key contributing factors. With this knowledge, we are working to align our programming to address these issues. Our experience has shown the invaluable benefit of investing in research and measurement, and of collaborating in new ways with partner agencies who bring a depth of expertise on these interrelated issues.

One message we hear from Warmline callers time and again is that the hardest part is making the first call. After that, they understand that their Jewish community is here to help, not to judge. They’re offered practical resources and expert caseworkers who stay by their side on their journey. In short, they’re offered hope — a powerful antidote to shame and despair. I’m so proud of what our community has accomplished and look forward to continuing this collaboration in the years ahead.

Sarah Abramson is senior vice president, strategy and impact, of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

You can learn more by reading the full version of the white paper No Wrong Door: One Jewish federation’s approach to addressing poverty in our community.

If you are part of the Greater Boston Jewish community and are experiencing a financial crisis call The CJP Warmline at 1-800-CJP-9500 or visit us online at


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