BROOKLYN, New York —Marcin and Kamila Majewski know that the recession has forced other long-time Polish immigrants in New York City to apply for food stamps and other public assistance, often for the first time. Despite their own financial strain, they still resist what they see as the humiliation of seeking government aid.
“We didn’t fall that low,” said Kamila, 65, who holds a masters degree from a Polish university and works part time at an after-school program. They say they feel almost embarrassed by a situation they never expected to experience.
The Majewskis, who have lived in the United States for 23 years, speak good English and have been involved in many community activities. But in 2007, Marcin, 60, lost his job as a desk clerk.
Getting Food Stamps Would Feel Strange
Kamila volunteers at a church where she serves a low-income and homeless population. One of her duties is helping other 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.
But for many months Marcin has been checking job listings at local employment agencies where he only finds “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 sixty to eighty dollars 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.
Experts say recession layoffs will have many long-term effects. “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 have been falling 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 their financial problems, Kamila 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 independent.
“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 will work one more year, at which time she will get full Social Security benefits.
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,” he said.
According to psychologist Krystyna Piotrowska-Breger, who works with Polish immigrants, “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.”
Many seniors have been forced to come up with various strategies to cope with financial hardship. Bozena Nowak, a social worker at the organization 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 superintendent. Today his Social Security retirement income is about $550 per month, 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 monthly subway 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 the 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 only $1.50. Every day around 11 a.m., approximately 150 seniors—most of them Polish immigrants—arrive for a meal subsidized by the U.S. Older Americans Act.
Yet the lifeline provided by the city’s senior centers is in peril. Amid a deteriorating budget crisis, 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 could be even more severe. The Krakus center is not currently on the list, but seniors in other parts of the city are worried.
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,” stressed Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City.
Christopher Miller, public affairs director at the NYC Department for the Aging, assured that even if some senior centers are 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.”
But in addition to meals, neighborhood senior centers provide often-isolated elders an opportunity 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 life in New York otherwise.
But his financial situation worries him. Like many other Polish elders, sometimes he considers going back to Poland, where one of this sons still lives. “Life is very expensive here,” he said. “It’s hard when you have to count every dollar.”
This is the second of two articles written by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska of the Polish Daily News in a project for New America Media’s Ethnic Elders News Fellowship, supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies. To read Part 1 of this story, click here.