As costs climb, community addresses back-to-school expenses
Photo by albastrica mititica via Flickr at
albastrica mititica via Flickr at
InflationBack to School

As costs climb, community addresses back-to-school expenses

With inflation reaching a 40-year high, markers, glue sticks and other school supplies are creating new financial burdens. Local organizations and Jewish day schools respond.

Main image by albastrica mititica via Flickr at

Classrooms will soon be filled again, but along with the return of occupied desks and bustling hallways are new economic pressures.

With inflation reaching a 40-year high, it’s not just gas and groceries that cost more but also markers, glue sticks and countless other school supplies.

In readying kids for the academic year, families with elementary through high school children expect to spend about $864 on school items — $15 more than last year — according to the National Retail Federation.

The bump is significant when every dollar counts.

Cindy Goodman-Leib, executive director of the Jewish Assistance Fund, said the organization is hearing from numerous people struggling with increased costs.

“Prices are rising, and it’s harder and harder to pay the bills,” Goodman-Leib said. With many in the community having exhausted whatever savings they had during the pandemic, “people have a helpless feeling.”

Goodman-Leib called the Jewish Assistance Fund a “helpful resource when there’s nowhere else to turn.”

On Aug. 3, JFCS Pittsburgh posted a list of local resources providing free backpacks, food, cloth masks and hand sanitizers.

Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JFCS, said that “families who are struggling to find the money to purchase back-to-school items” can reach out to JFCS’ Critical Needs Hotline (412-742-4215 or “We will consider their situation and determine what resources might be available to assist them — either internally at JFCS or by referring them to external resources.”

Photo by Jason Tamez via Flickr at

Representatives of Pittsburgh’s Jewish day schools said they’ve done what they can to help defray costs, but they, too, face increased expenses.

Rabbi Sam Weinberg, of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, said he’s received a request from “every single teacher” for a raise due to inflation. The appeals make sense, he continued, as “everything has gone up; stuff is more expensive.”

Regarding school supplies, however, Hillel Academy will again partner with organizations, including GIVE and JFCS, to provide items for people in need, Weinberg said. “That’s always been our policy, and we take pride in knowing that every kid should have what they need to feel confident and successful in school — regardless of COVID or inflation or people’s financial situation.”

Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, said that Yeshiva is “being extremely careful as to what we’re putting on book order and supply lists. We are always careful but now more than ever before.”

The school also is scrutinizing its budget and trying to identify ways to avoid “waste,” Rosenblum said. “We want to make sure we don’t harm the education or compromise education and, at the same time, want to make sure we don’t want to waste parents’ money.”

As for ensuring students have the necessary back-to-school items, Rosenblum credited parent volunteers with discreetly collecting surplus supplies from families and distributing them to others in need.

Jennifer Bails of Community Day School said teachers at CDS are cognizant of current fiscal burdens and “purposely don't include brand names on the items requested so families have the freedom to choose lower-cost items.”

Bails credited the “network of Jewish financial support services in the Pittsburgh community” with helping many individuals and families.

At CDS, a team of volunteer parents is trying to offset some costs by operating a back-to-school store. Open at the start of the year and as the seasons change, the space gives families a place to buy gently-used uniforms and avoid the escalating expenses of new clothes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, apparel costs rose 5.2% during the 12 months preceding June.

In years past, National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh combatted back-to-school shopping expenses by operating a pop-up store on the city’s East End. After undergoing a revaluation of internal programming and policies, however, the organization adopted a new model.

Instead of hosting a one-day event where people could come receive what they needed, NCJW pivoted to managing Kids Community Closets, a program where NCJW liaisons with partner organizations and schools to first learn about the specific requests and then provide clothing for children in grades K-5, NCJW Programming and Communication Manager Kate Rothstein said.

Based on conversations with partner agencies and schools, NCJW meets a host of clothing needs while allowing the various entities to determine when and how distribution occurs. In this way, Rothstein said, the work becomes “more relational than transactional.”

Matthew Bolton, director of the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, said that with “the added costs associated with preparing kids for a new year in school everyone is getting squeezed.”

Bolton pointed to the costs of potatoes and oranges — each up 25% — and kosher chicken, which is up 15% from last year, but said he was encouraged by recent changes in government programs.

Whereas the Emergency Food Assistance Program previously required eligible parties to maintain a household income at or below 150% of the poverty line, that figure expanded to 185%.

“With these changes, many new families are eligible, and I would request that they should please give us a call,” Bolton said. “We have food, we have case workers that help with social service needs and we are here for the community.”

As children return to school, families are seeing rising costs nearly everywhere they look. For that reason, “utilizing every program is key,” Bolton said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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