Aiding Bulgaria’s “New Poor” Families

March 20, 2012


When Isak, 6, Stephany, 11, and Maria, 13, received their first JDC package of winter clothing they embraced the social worker and exclaimed, “These are our first new jeans! We’ve never had jeans that were our size before.”

Their parents, Harry and Yana, choked back tears, unsure how to react to their children’s overwhelming joy at receiving a simple article of clothing—something which they were no longer able to materially provide themselves.

A year ago, the economic crisis in Bulgaria took a direct hit on this family. Yana was laid off from her job as an optician. With three children and a blind and bed-ridden elderly mother to care for, she was taking sick leave more often than the other employees. She looked for a job for a year, but given Bulgaria’s dire economic situation, she had no success.

Left to survive on Harry’s monthly salary of just over $500, the family fell deep into poverty. Their unpaid bills, rising heating costs, and overdue taxes added up to over $8000 in debt. They desperately needed help.

Harry and Yana’s troubling circumstances are echoed among hundreds of Jewish families plunged into poverty by Bulgaria’s financial emergency. Repercussions from the European debt crisis have taken a particular toll on this country, which is heavily dependent on foreign investment and a currency pegged to the euro. Soaring unemployment and drastic spikes in the prices of food, gas, and utilities are crippling young families. With the lowest incomes in the EU, 65-70% of Bulgarian families report considerable difficulties covering their basic needs for food, utilities, education, and healthcare.

Formerly self-sufficient families have joined the ranks of the “New Poor” as a result of declining wages, forced unpaid “vacations,” unemployment, and burdensome mortgage payments. Among Bulgaria’s Jews, more and more families are turning to their community’s welfare system; hundreds are unemployed and unable to turn to their own relatives for help (as parents are usually unemployed as well and grandparents are living off meager state pensions).

Only three years ago, the “middle generation” (people in their 30s to 50s) in Bulgaria was helping to support their children, their elderly parents, and the growing Jewish community. Today, these same families cannot even help themselves.

JDC’s main partner in Bulgaria, Shalom has seen its welfare caseload grow over 35% by the end of 2011 and is struggling to maintain social services for those in need while responding to the increased demands for assistance.

For Harry and Yana’s family, JDC assistance supplements the family’s meager income, helps cover the costs of heating in the winter, and allows the children to attend the local Jewish school in Sophia. They also receive clothing, school uniforms, school supplies, and scholarships to participate in programs at the local Jewish Community Center.

Additionally, Yana was retrained to work as a caregiver for the Jewish community’s welfare programs. “I would like to thank you for everything you’ve done for my family, but the biggest help is that now I feel useful again,” Yana told a group of Shalom social workers. “Taking care of the elderly is wonderful and has given me back my dignity.”

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