September 16, 2009

The Tough Choices...

The latest briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director, Former Soviet Union Programs:

We have spent the better part of the summer collecting data and doing all sorts of economic analyses in order to understand the full impact of the economic downturn on the people who depend on us in the FSU. We know that the situation there is bad; that unemployment and underemployment are rampant, inflation has eroded pensions, and so on. Last year we reduced our assistance to the elderly in real terms, and some 20,000 needy Jews were removed from our caseload.

The challenge that we face is not so much understanding the problem on the macro level. We know that many more need help, and many who receive help do not receive nearly enough. We can provide all of the data, and put forward proposals for what is needed. But I have felt all along that this is not enough. The data is important, but the human side of it all is of course paramount. The question, then, is how does all of this translate to the individual? What does it mean to say that many elderly Jews simply do not get enough support to live lives we would want for them? How do we get beyond repeating the "dilemma of food or medicine", so that our constituency doesn't become calloused by the sheer repetition?

What follows is an attempt to explain this situation from the perspective of the individual. By looking at one client who is not noticeably distinguishable from most of those we serve, and understanding a bit better her struggle for survival, we can hope for some insight into the impact we are trying to understand.


Faina Sinaevna was born in 1937 in Minsk, now the capital of Belarus. She was the youngest of four children.

When World War II broke out Faina's father and brother joined the Red Army. Her brother was killed during the war and her father was injured. Faina's mother was evacuated to the east with her three children, first to the Volga region and from there to Kazakhstan. During this difficult time, they had little income to live on. Her sister managed to find a job, but was paid with soap, and not money. The family was often on the brink of starvation.

When the war ended, the family returned to Minsk where Faina's father worked in the wood industry until he passed away not long after that, in 1954.

Faina married in 1963 and had a son. She worked as a salesperson and her husband was a house painter. Faina's son died in a drowning accident in 1996, when he was 33 years old and her husband passed away several years later.

Today Faina lives by herself in one 17 square meter room in Minsk and receives a monthly pension of $117. She suffers from hypertension, arrhythmia, heart disease, gastric ulcer and a gall bladder disease.

We read the story of her life and can't help but be moved. This woman, like many other contemporaries of hers who receive help from Hesed, has endured suffering in her 73 years that is almost unimaginable. She's been victimized by war, illness and poverty- and these are only the "major" categories. Add to this the daily indignities of Soviet life for Jews, the interminable lines and food shortages, the bureaucracies one encountered on a regular basis, and we have a picture that is not very pretty.

At this point, I'd like to go a bit deeper and understand her struggle through the prosaic lens of her monthly budget. I want to quantify one aspect of her life- and through that hope to understand better what our elderly clients confront.

To do so, I want to share the details of her monthly budget, from both sides of the ledger. How does a meager income last through a month? Remember that the numbers we see here are without a safety net behind them. There is little room to maneuver here. A precipitous rise in prices due to inflation or economic downturn, or an unexpected need for an additional medicine, or any other bill that was unplanned, turns her life into a living hell.

Below is a list of Faina's monthly expenses:
Rent: $12
Electricity: $6
Phone: $1
Medicines: $22
Polokard: $3
Panangin: $4 (for coronary insufficiency)
Liaton gel: $5 (to prevent blood clots)
Rumakar: $4 (arthritis cream)
Kenatal: $4.50 (intestine medication)
Ibuprofen: $.50
Daily hygiene $6

It is worth noting two examples of what is missing here: transportation (she rarely leaves her flat) and clothing (nothing is replaced). There is much more, but the idea is clear.
What remains from her monthly budget after these deductions is $70. From her $70, she owes a monthly debt of $10.5 for a washing machine she purchased (this is her first washing machine ever!) This means her starting point for her monthly food budget is $59.5.

The Hesed in Minsk, together with three local geriatric dieticians, has determined a basic standard diet which they believe is appropriate for an elderly client. It includes the following:

15 eggs = $1.50
2 kilos of fish = $8
4.5 kilos of chicken = $13
12 liters of milk = $6
8 liters of kefir (a kind of yoghurt) = $4
10 loaves of black bread= $6
10 loaves of white bread = $5
2 packages of butter = $2
1 kilo of sour cream = $2.50
1 kilo of cottage cheese = $2.50
0.5 kilo of yellow cheese = $3
1 liter of oil = $2
0.1 kilos of tea = $1
1 kilo of sugar = $1
1.2 kilos of pasta = $2
13 kilos of potatoes = $7
1 kilo of flour = $0.50
1 bottle of vinegar = $1
0.8 kilo of chocolate = $2
2 kilos of buckwheat = $2
Other = $3

The cost of this package is about $75 per month, which is less than the money she has available for food (about $59.50 USD).

And so we asked her Hesed curator how Faina manages. According to the dieticians:

Faina needs 15 eggs per month and buys only 10 eggs;
Faina needs 2 kilos of fish per month and buys only 1 kilo;
Faina needs 10 loaves of bread per month and she buys only 8 loaves;
Faina needs 2 packages of butter per month and she buys none (0);
Faina needs 13 kilos of potatoes per month and she buys only 10 kilos
Faina would love a bit of sweets, but she foregoes her 800 grams of chocolate.

The list goes on. But in order to live off her $59.50 monthly food budget, Faina skips meals and buys less of the items above as well as less sour cream, less cheese, less oil, less tea, less pasta, less flour, less chicken and less sugar. Whatever isn't on the list doesn't exist in her diet.

The one food that is an exception to the rule is buckwheat. What we knew growing up as "kasha". That she buys in relatively large quantities because it is cheap and filling, and she uses it to replace other healthier and more expensive options in her diet.

I could analyze further and comment more extensively, but these numbers speak for themselves.

It shouldn't be this way in the twilight years of a Jewish woman who has led the kind of life she has led to date. JDC has assumed responsibility to make the situation more bearable.

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