Australian Jews May Top Forbes' Rich List, but 20% Live on Poverty Line

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SYDNEY - Scour Forbes magazine's 2012 annual list of Australia's richest people and the following statistic leaps out: five of the nation's top 10 billionaires are Jewish.

Or, to put it more bluntly, 50 percent of the top 10 hail from a community that comprises just 0.5 percent of Australia's population of about 22 million.

South African emigre Ivan Glasenberg, the chief executive of Glencore, is second on the Forbes list with a fortune estimated at around $7 billion; Westfield Group chief Frank Lowy, a Czech-born Holocaust survivor who arrived penniless in Australia via Israel in 1952, is fifth and worth almost $4.5 billion; property tycoon Harry Triguboff, the son of Russian Jews who was born in China before immigrating to Australia in 1947, is sixth with about $4 billion; Anthony Pratt, the boss of the cardboard recycling giant Visy, whose father came as a refugee from prewar Poland, is seventh with an estimated $3.5 billion; and Australian-born businessman John Gandel, the son of Polish-immigrant parents, is listed eighth with $3 billion.

Jointly, they have amassed a fortune worth almost $25 billion. And lest there be any doubt, the 2012 list of Australia's richest families, compiled by Business Review Weekly magazine, reads thus: the Smorgon family tops the list with an estimated wealth of more than $2.5 billion; in second spot is the Liberman family with a listing of more than $2 billion, followed by the Besen family, also at over $2 billion.

True, they are also among the most philanthropic people in the country, according to Philanthropy Australia, the national peak body for charitable giving.

But what neither the Forbes list nor the BRW list reveals is one little-known statistic - that about 20 percent of Jews in Sydney and Melbourne, which jointly houses about 90 percent of Australia's 110,000-plus Jews, live close to or below the poverty line.

And among those who are most exposed to poverty are members of the fervently Orthodox community and those born in the former Soviet Union.

These brutal facts were highlighted in a 38-page report titled "Poverty and Emergency Relief" released toward the end of 2012 by academics Andrew Markus and Miriam Munz at Monash University in Melbourne in partnership with Jewish Care Victoria.

The report is part of a landmark Jewish population survey based on an extensive research project called Gen08. The poverty report notes that data extrapolated from the 2011 Australian census confirms a "marked Jewish over-representation in the top income brackets."

But it also reveals that the level of Jewish poverty is, as Yair Miller, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, put it, "a little-known fact" and "one we as a community need to pay close attention to."

"The report finds substantial inequality and poverty within the Jewish community, with several indicators pointing to a level of poverty and near poverty which is likely to be above 20 percent of the Jewish population, higher in Victoria than in New South Wales," Professor Markus said.

And the outlook is grim, he added: "There are a number of indicators that the situation is getting worse."

The cost of Jewish life, the report suggests, exacerbates the problem because of the high cost of housing in suburbs with the highest Jewish populations, such as the Bondi area in Sydney and Caulfield in Melbourne, the cost of Jewish education, which can amount to more than $20,000 a year per child, and increased costs for observant Jews, including synagogue fees and kosher food.

The survey, conducted in Jewish communities between 2008 and 2009, found that close to 17 percent of respondents in Victoria and New South Wales indicated that they were "just getting along," "nearly poor" or "poor."

The analysis of the data indicates the highest levels of poverty are found among those with disabilities. Above average levels were found in the long-term unemployed, single-parent families, those over 70, those born in the former Soviet Union and the strictly Orthodox, who often have larger families and pay a premium associated with observing Orthodoxy.

Organizations such as Jewish Care in Sydney and Melbourne provide high-level facilities and support, especially for the aged and those with disabilities.

But emergency relief organizations are growing in demand, according to the report. The Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund is the largest, dispensing more than $1 million in 2011-2012, with housing and food as its major expenditures, according to Professor Markus.

"A majority of its clients, perhaps three-quarters, are from the Orthodox community," he said.

But Professor Markus warned: "At present, in the provision of Jewish emergency relief in both Melbourne and Sydney, there is lack of high-level coordination and planning, an approach that may not be sustainable in the long-term."

Australian Jewry's poverty rate appears to be on par with Israel's and America's. According to the most recent UJA-Federation study, one-fifth of the Jews in New York City are poor, with 333,000 people living in poor Jewish homes, and 174,000 in "near poor" Jewish homes. In Israel, some 20 percent of families live below the poverty line, according to a recent National Insurance Institute survey.

The Sydney Opera House, an icon of Australia - which now has the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world. Credit: AP

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