Forty years ago, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was founded in response to growing concerns that Jewish poverty was largely overlooked, something that was too taboo to discuss. We were all shocked when the 2002 Jewish Community Study first showed that there were 226,000 Jews living in poverty in New York City.
Unfortunately the problem has only gotten worse. A new special report on poverty by UJA-Federation of New York in partnership with the Met Council, found that 565,000 New Yorkers live in Jewish households below or near the federal poverty line. Twice as many people live in poor Jewish households today as did in 1991, an unimaginable statistic.
So why haven’t you heard more about this poverty crisis right in our community? It’s not a lack of caring from American Jews. Social action is increasingly a part of our lives; tikkun olam is central to everything we do as Jews, improving communities around the world. But when it comes to poor American Jews, there is no outcry. One part of the answer is that Jewish poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in New York. If New York were a foreign country, American Jews would not tolerate more than 500,000 Jews living in or near poverty. We would see it as a “Jewish issue,” and hundreds of us would go on “missions” to help. But because the issue exists largely in New York, it is considered a problem for local organizations and government to address.
We can no longer afford to take that attitude. Forty-five percent of all children in Jewish households in New York now live below or near the poverty line. While the Jewish population increased by only 14% in the New York area over the past two decades, the number of people living in poor Jewish households doubled. The crisis is spreading past New York City, as well. Suburban Jewish communities in the region saw an 86% increase in poverty in just the past decade.
Three populations in particular need our help the most: Russian-speaking immigrants, the elderly and large religious households, including those that have children in need.
The report found that poverty is highest in the Russian Jewish community: Seventy-two percent of Russian-speaking Jewish seniors live in poverty in New York, making up 26% of all poor Jewish households. Many do not speak English, and thus find it hard to get work, obtain Social Security or apply for basic services. This leaves them isolated, coping with aging and poverty without help.
It’s not only the Russian elderly that need assistance; 43% of poor Jewish households are seniors that live without anyone under 65. For the elderly living alone in poverty, access to human services and housing is critical to their quality of life.
The number of poor children has increased by 10% since 2002, a particularly distressing statistic; 33% of people in poor Jewish households are children younger than 18, and these children come from diverse social, economic and geographic backgrounds. And they are located throughout the region: More than one-third of the families live in the Bronx, another third in Brooklyn and a fifth in Queens.