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Nearly a Million Living in Poor Jewish Households; Study Challenges Longstanding Views Of Need

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 08, 2004, issue of October 08, 2004.
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Close to 1 million people in American Jewish families live in low-income households, according to a new study that appears to be the most extensive national communal study ever done about economic vulnerability among American Jews.

The study released last month, which used data gathered during the 2001 National Jewish Population Study, looked at those Jews living in households that earn roughly less than 150% of the federal poverty rate, or $25,000 for a family of four. Some 15% of all persons in Jewish households were below the threshold, more than twice the rate of Jews living under the federal poverty rate. Researchers involved said they were surprised by the magnitude of the numbers.

The breakdown of the data along demographic lines turned up figures that refute many of the long-standing perceptions about the limits of Jewish economic hardship. As expected, the elderly were more likely than other age groups to fall under the low-income threshold, at 23%. Still, fully 12% of Jewish children were found to be living in low-income households. The image of New York as the epicenter of Jewish poverty was countered by a regional breakdown showing that the West had the highest rate of poor Jews, at 17% of all households, while the figure for both the Midwest and South was 12%.

A more detailed glimpse of regional trends is provided by another just-finished study from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Fully 22% of all Jewish households in greater Los Angeles were found to be earning less than $25,000 a year, according to the so-called Los Angeles Jewish Poverty White Paper, which has not yet been released publicly. The white paper found that 7% of all Jews in the area — the nation’s second largest Jewish community after New York — live below the federal poverty line.

“This is a national Jewish problem,” said William Rapfogel, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the only major Jewish organization dedicated entirely to the Jewish poor. “It requires a mobilization of the Jewish community on a national level, so we can begin to advocate on the issue of Jewish poverty, as we have advocated on the general issue of poverty.”

The previous National Jewish Population Survey, released in 1990, contained a few figures on low-income households, but nothing that compares to the findings of the current study. The most representative figure from 1990 showed that 14% of entirely Jewish households were living on less than $27,500 in 2001 dollars.

The current national study, released by United Jewish Communities, follows up on a report from last year that indicated 5% of Jewish households were living under the poverty line in 2001, a figure that was contrasted with the 11.7% overall national poverty rate that year. The figure for Jewish poverty has now been revised upward to 7%, as the researchers believe they erred in assuming that anyone who did not answer questions about income was not under the poverty line; Twenty-seven percent did not answer these questions.

But the poverty questions were only asked of those respondents with “stronger Jewish connections,” who represent 4.1 million of the estimated 6.7 million people living in Jewish households. The new low-income statistics apply to all the Jewish households considered in the 2001 study. For the population of 6.7 million — including some individuals who are not Jewish but live in households with Jewish members — the study found 15% under the low-income threshold, or nearly 1 million persons. The rate drops to 13% when looking only at the 5.2 million Jews in America.

In comparison to the poverty statistics, the low-income figures are significantly closer to the numbers for all American households, where 20% of the population was below the low-income threshold in 2001, according to a parallel study done by UJC at the time.

Many social scientists believe that studies looking at low income are a more accurate gauge of economic hardship than poverty statistics because the federal poverty rate has not been revised in decades and does not take into account regional variations in the cost of living, a particular problem when looking at the Jewish population, which is concentrated in expensive urban areas.

The UJC study treads many of the same lines as the “Report on Jewish Poverty” released by the UJA-Federation of New York last year. That study found that 20% of Jews in New York City were living below 150% of the poverty line.

The low-income threshold used by the national study was a rough measure because the respondents were only asked their income within $10,000 ranges. This forced the UJC researchers to use the income bracket closest to 150% of the federal poverty line for each household size. For families of one, three and five, this meant that the low-income line used was higher than 150% of the poverty line, while for other families it was lower.

A leading demographer who has examined Jewish poverty in several local surveys, Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, said the national study might provide a slightly inflated picture of economic vulnerability because the analysis did not extract young students, who have no income but are frequently not economically vulnerable. Among Jews aged 18 to 34 in the study, 16% were found to be under the low-income threshold.

Social service professionals, on the other hand, cautioned that the numbers may provide an overly sunny portrait of the current situation, because the study is based on data collected from August 2000 to August 2001, before the recent economic downturn began. Since 2001, the national poverty rate has risen from 11.7% to 12.5%. The study also does not touch on the issue of the so-called near poor, who frequently face the greatest economic problems because they receive no government benefits, according to Rapfogel of the Jewish poverty council.

Even among the low-income population, though, the study points to a sizable unmet need for social services. Among the low-income population who felt they needed home health care, 85% received it, but when it came to employment help and financial assistance, generally only 55% to 60% of those who felt they needed help were receiving help.

The report also underscores the difficulty that some poor families face in accessing Jewish communal institutions. Fully 25% of poor Jews said that costs prevented them from joining a synagogue, and 17% said they were unable to keep kosher because of the cost.

The 1990 survey had found that poor Jews were less likely to be religiously observant than those with higher incomes, apparently due to the cost of participation. That was seen as a reversal of a traditional pattern in which wealthier Jews were considered less observant. The new findings appear likely to confirm the 1990 trend.

The study did confirm many well-known trends among the Jewish poor, including the high degree of economic trouble among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 50% of whom are under the low-income threshold. The Los Angeles study found that in the Fairfax neighborhood, which is heavy with immigrants, fully 33% of Jews were under the poverty line.

But the national study also suggested that economic vulnerability spreads beyond these traditional groupings. Among married couples with children, 10% are under the low-income threshold, while the figure is 22% among single-parent households.

The higher concentration of poor Jews in the West has been a consistent finding in recent demographic studies according to Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the lead researcher on the UJC report; it now appears that 30% of poor Jews in America live in the West.

The Los Angeles White Paper drew its data from a 1997 Los Angeles demographic study and the 2001 national study. For social service providers in Los Angeles, there has been anecdotal evidence of rising economic need since the studies were done — including during the last months of economic recovery.

“While there is an economic change that has happened in the last months, I’m not sure how much has filtered down to the social level we’re talking about,” said Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. “Every month we see more clients than we see the month before.”

The findings in Los Angeles have already spurred the organization of a conference in Tel Aviv this October to look at the issue of Jewish poverty in Israel and the United States.

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