NEW YORK – The popular image of New York Jews is that they are all wealthy - or at least highly educated and financially secure. But the reality, at least for a significant part of the population, is completely different. Thirty percent of all people living in New York Jewish households are poor or near-poor, according to a new look at the issue by UJA-Federation of New York.
The poor are concentrated in a few segments of the community, particularly Russian-speaking households, Hasidic households and those with senior citizens. Nearly half - 45 percent - of Jewish children in New York live in poor or near-poor households.
“The scale of Jewish poverty” in the New York area “is immense,” according to the Special Report on Poverty, which was published Thursday. It is based on the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York.
In the past two decades, the number of impoverished Jewish households in New York has nearly doubled, from 70,000 in 1991 to 130,000 in 2011, the report states.
“Jewish poverty is not an oxymoron,” said William Rapfogel, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, an agency which gets $3 to $4 million in annual funding from the federation, in a conference call with federation leaders and reporters about the new report. “The numbers are very distressing.”
In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Rapfogel added, “There is this really widespread perception, even among affluent Jews, that Jews don’t have poverty issues, don’t have need issues.”
The Jewish community, in fact, is only slightly less poor than New Yorkers in general. Twenty percent of New York Jews are considered poor - meaning they have household income of under $21,000 for two adults in a household, or $33,000 for a family of four - which is only marginally less than the 25 percent of all New Yorkers who are poor.
More New York Jews live in poverty than there are Jews living in any other city in the U.S., with the possible exception of Los Angeles, the report states. Its analysis is based on information collected from almost 6,000 interviews conducted for the 2011 Jewish Community Study.
The majority of people living in the poorest Jewish households are very young or old. One-third of all people living in such households are under 18. And 23 percent are age 65 or older.
The largest single group of Jewish poor is Russian-speaking senior citizens. “With little or no work history in the United States, few in this group are able to access Social Security,” the report states. Even when they do, “this entitlement does not provide an adequate income to meet basic needs, adding to the challenge of how to cope with the twin burdens of aging and poverty. Most Russian-speaking senior households are located in Brooklyn,” according to the federation report.
The population with the second-largest number of poor households is that of the Hasidim. “They are seriously constrained by low levels of secular education,” says the federation report. “The large number of children in poor Hasidic families has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in the number of people in poverty.”
The nine years between Jewish community studies by UJA-Federation saw a doubling in the percentage of poor households with five or more people in them: in the 2002 study, 9 percent of poor households had five or more members. In the 2011 study, 18 percent were that size.
The report also states: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, most poor Hasidic households do have at least one person working full-time.” As any New Yorker knows, however, one adult working full-time is no longer sufficient for most families to stay in the middle class, particularly when factoring in multiple children.
The embarrassment factor
Jews are less likely than other populations to utilize government entitlements, like subsidized housing or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), the report states. Thirty three percent of the Jewish poor in New York receive Medicaid, the federal government-provided health insurance for poor adults. Thirteen percent receive government-provided housing subsidies or live in public housing. And despite the fact that the number of poor households with children has increased, just three percent of poor Jewish households have signed up for government-funded health insurance for children.
“Poor Jews tend to be embarrassed and not use entitlements,” Rapfogel told Haaretz.
At a time when the federal (and, consequently, state and local) government is reducing budgets for social services, the burden of caring for such a high degree of need rests uneasily on the Jewish federation. “The sheer scale of Jewish poverty in the New York area is overwhelming,” the poverty report states. “The primary responsibility for combating poverty rests with people themselves and with government.”
It goes on to suggest that the Jewish federation and its network should not be considered the only group responsible for addressing the challenge, and may have to make difficult choices about where to put its limited philanthropic dollars. “The diverse groups affected by poverty," the report finds, "create an imperative for an extraordinary response - from government, the voluntary sector, the philanthropic sector, and all segments of society. These findings suggest that the organized Jewish community needs to take a hard look at current planning, advocacy, service delivery and resource investment.”
It is too soon to say just how the Jewish federation may shift the way it spends its money to address the needs of poor Jewish New Yorkers.
“This is not a matter of changing dials,” said Scott A. Shay, chair of the committee that oversaw the 2011 Jewish Community Study, in the conference call. For each subset of the Jewish community, there are “complicated social, economic, personal and community issues to address,” he said. “There’s no doubt that dramatic change will happen over time. It would truly be a mistake,” he added, for the federation “to try and do something overnight.”
An additional challenge is getting wealthier Jews to acknowledge the reality of Jewish poverty in New York, say those involved. “Even people who are involved in Jewish life, who will go to look and see Jewish poverty in the former Soviet Union or in Israel - or even Cuba - will not go to Brooklyn,” said Rapfogel. “Sixty percent of Jewish poverty in New York is in Brooklyn. It’s the capital of Jewish poverty in America.”
Funders “don’t want to believe in this incredibly wealth Jewish community of New York City that there are Jews who go to sleep hungry at night,” he said. “They want to be in denial and not know about it.”