Jewish Community Services Adopts Groundbreaking Approach to Financial Independence


Joan Grayson Cohen, executive director of Jewish Community Services, says her staff sees it often – individuals and families caught in a pattern of instability that leaves them in need of financial assistance again and again – despite JCS’ best efforts to teach them how to manage their budget.

“Many individuals never had role models to explain to them how to manage money,” explains Grayson Cohen. “And without that history, they often cannot keep to a plan and quickly overspend, making it hard for many to become financially stable for the long-term.”

Recognizing how important it is to ensure community members become financially independent, JCS is embracing new ways to minimize poverty within our community. To that end, they are set to incorporate a groundbreaking approach to tackle financial instability.

This year, four JCS professionals will be some of the first to receive a new graduate-level certificate in financial social work from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the first university in the country to offer this program. The professionals will then return to JCS and train the staff on how to incorporate this practice with their clients.

Based on behavioral economics – the discipline that studies the effects of psychological, social and cultural factors on economic decisions – financial social work’s underlying premise is that personal money management choices are based on social aspects as well as budgeting skills.

“Instead of merely looking at traditional interventions – budgeting, cost/benefit analysis –we are looking at learned behaviors and family habits around money. Then we begin to address the underlying behaviors in order to make changes,” explains Lisa Gorman, senior manager, career services at JCS, who is one of the professionals participating in the certificate program.

“Financial literacy is not enough. We are asking questions like ‘how did you arrive in this situation? How did your behavior keep you in this situation?” explains Jean Davis, director, economic services at JCS.

Currently, individuals who come to JCS seeking financial assistance to pay basic bills are expected to learn the fundamentals of financial literacy by participating in classes or one-on-one with their service coordinator. They also are required to look for a job.

And, since financial instability not only affects ability to pay, it often leads to more complex issues from depression to anxiety, JCS therapists often address these concerns.

Yet, with the incorporation of financial social work at all levels– from the front desk personnel who take the first call to the career counselors and therapists – JCS will be able to apply a more holistic approach to this issue.

“Poverty, we are discovering, is often intergenerational. It is our responsibility to help break the cycle so individuals can become productive and independent in our community,” says Grayson Cohen.

The program, which will be implemented next year, is being funded by a Weinberg Foundation Workforce Innovation Grant.

Virtual Career Center

Not only is JCS bringing a new approach to financial independence, but they will be launching a virtual career center.

Taking into account that today’s job seeker may not always have time to sit down with a career coach, they are making the services more accessible by offering them online.

JCS’ online platform will provide services, resources and support for people seeking a new job or wanting to advance in their careers. Users will benefit from the expertise of the career center professionals, including assistance with resumes, tailored cover letters for individual jobs and interview help. Webinars and blogs will provide valuable tools and strategies for a successful job search. Some of the areas of the virtual center will be open to the public while others will require membership for access. For instance, members will have access to job postings from JCS’ broad employment network that consists of approximately 700 businesses, and can also talk virtually with a career coach who can help them with their search. The fee for membership, calculated on a sliding scale for Jewish individuals, allows a job seeker to take advantage of the full scope of the Career Center’s on-line and in-person services.

“With the complexities of life, this is an easy way to look for a job when time is tight,” says Grayson Cohen. “And it is a door-opener for those seeking employment who may not be ready to ask for help in person.”

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