Recession Forces Polish Elders to Seek Aid for First Time

Recession Forces Polish Elders to Seek Aid for First Time

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Marcin and Kamila Majewski know that the recession has forced other long-time Polish immigrants in New York City to applying for food stamps and other public assistance, often for their first time. But despite their own financial strain, they still resist the humiliation of seeking government aid.
“We didn’t fall that low,” said Kamila, 65, who holds a master degree from Poland and works part time at an after-school program. In 2007 her husband, Marcin, 60, lost his job as a desk clerk.

The Majewskis, who have lived in the United States for 23 years, speak good English and have been involved in many community activities.

Getting Food Stamps Would Feel Strange

Kamila volunteers at a church, where she serves low-income and homeless population, such as by helping people fill out food-stamp applications. “I would feel so strange doing it for myself. I still consider our situation temporary. We have to be happy with what we have,” she said.

For many months Marcin kept checking job listings at local employment agencies where he only found “some offers for women but nothing for men.”

At one point he got a job as a home attendant, but was given very few hours of work per week. “For a few months I was earning $60-80 a week. At the same time this was blocking my rights to unemployment benefits,” he said.

Recently, Marcin got hired for the 2010 U.S. Census, but that will only last until early July.

The impact of the economic crisis can have many long-term effects, too. “There is a pretty robust body of evidence showing that if you lose your job during a recession it takes you 15 to 20 years before you catch up to where you would have been had you not lost your job,” said Aaron Terrazas, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C., who called this phenomenon economically “scary.”

“If you think about the population of immigrants in their late 40s, upper 50s, it’s unlikely that they are going to find another job soon. This population of upper-middle-aged immigrants won’t even have time to catch up,” Terrazas said.

‘We’ve Been Good Citizens’

The Majewskis fallen back on their savings for a long time, and their finances are significantly depleted. “We had to cut all extra costs,” Kamila said. “We don’t have a car anymore, we don’t have cell phones, we stopped traveling.”

On top of all those problems she has not felt well recently and had to give up some of her hours at work. “I used to get $1,000 a month, and now it’s $600,” she said. It’s almost a relief that their three children, who live in Poland, are adults and financially on their own.

“We’ve been good citizens, kept paying taxes from the beginning, worked hard,” Kamila stated. “It’s really frightening.”

It’s still six years before Marcin can get full Social Security retirement benefits. But he is considering taking early retirement at age 62, if he does not have a permanent job by then.

Kamila, with only one year left till she gets full Social Security benefits, decided to work until then.

They feel almost embarrassed by the situation they’ve never expected to experience.

Marcin takes his situation especially hard: “I’m trying not to show what’s bothering me and keep up a positive attitude. But I used to be the head of the household. Not being able to support the family is very frustrating. I feel like a parasite sometimes.”

Psychologist Krystyna Piotrowska-Breger, who works with Polish immigrants, observed, “In communities with a traditional perception of a man’s role in the household a situation of this kind may pose emotional challenges. For men, more than for women, work provides identity and meaning. Men who lose their job may feel like psychologically they are losing their masculinity.”

Even in families that have not been affected by layoffs, seniors are experiencing other forms of hardship. Many had to come up with various strategies to cope with the situation. Bozena Nowak, a social worker at Polonians Organized to Minister to Our Community, based in Queens, N.Y., said some try to get odd jobs to make financial ends meet. Others rent apartments with their family members or fellow seniors.

Wojciech Zebrowski, 72, and his wife live with their 30-year-old son in a city-subsidized apartment. In the past living with him was a choice. Now, it’s a necessity.

When Zebrowski arrived in the U.S. he was 52. A teacher in Poland, he first worked in this country as a lathe operator and later as a building super. Today his Social Security retirement income is around $550, and his wife’s is $600.

Their son helps them pay for the apartment and other everyday expenses. “Everything goes up, from food to medications,” Zebrowski said. In May their rent increased to $830. “Even my subway monthly card went recently up from $36 to $45. We have been spending money very carefully for a long time, but now there is nothing else to cut from our expenses,” he said.

Help at Krakus Senior Center

Major help for Zebrowski’s family comes from the Krakus Senior Center at the Polish Slavic Center in Greenpoint, where a hearty lunch costs $1.50. Every day around 11 a.m., approximately 150 seniors--most of them Polish immigrants--arrive for a meal subsidized by the federal Older Americans Act.
Amid the deteriorating budget situation, New York City plans to close 50 of its more than 300 senior centers by July 1. Depending on the state budget, which is still not finalized, the city’s cuts may be even more severe. The Krakus center does not seem to be on the list, but seniors in other parts of the city have a reason to worry.

Numerous other senior programs will be affected by budget cuts, as well. “For example there are plans to eliminate funding for people who are victims of elder abuse. There are so many cuts you can’t win it all back. We’re taking huge steps back,” Sackman stressed.

Christopher Miller, public affairs director at the NYC Department for the Aging, was reassuring that even if some senior centers get closed, elders won’t be left without help. “What we’re planning on doing is to somehow bus seniors from their current center to a local nearby center so they can still get their meal. We’re working on a contingency plan at the moment to figure out how to do it.”

In addition to meals, though, senior centers also give often-isolated elders opportunities for socialization, health care screenings and other activities. At the Krakus center, for instance, Polish immigrants attend English classes, have a theatre group, recite poetry and even have a band.

Wojciech Zebrowski goes there almost every day and says he cannot imagine otherwise.

But his financial situation worries him. Like many other Polish elders, sometimes he considers going back to Poland. His other son still lives there. “Life is very expensive here,” he said. “It’s hard when you have to count every dollar.”

<i>This is the second of two articles written by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska of Nowy Dziennik and Feet in Two Worlds as a project for New America Media’s Ethnic Elders News Fellowship, supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.</i>