Jewish Poverty Deepens in New York City

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.

Both the depth and distribution of Jewish poverty in New York City has increased during the past decade, according to a new study.

The study found that nearly 60% of Jews living in Brooklyn’s heavily ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg neighborhood live in poverty.

More surprising to some observers is the finding that the number of poor has risen sharply in both the Bronx and Queens, outside historic centers of Jewish poverty in Brooklyn.

These findings were contained in a new study of Jewish poverty unveiled Tuesday at the offices of the UJA-Federation of New York, which sponsored the work along with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The “Report on Jewish Poverty” is a detailed analysis of the preliminary poverty figures given in the Jewish Community Study of New York, which was released last summer and was based on phone interviews from 2002.

Many activists in the Jewish community were shocked by the finding that nearly 21% of Jews in New York City live at less than 150% of the federal poverty line, the standard used to define poverty in this study. That amounts to $13,290 for a one-person household and $27, 150 for a four-person household.

That figure represented a sharp rise from the levels of Jewish poverty in 1991, when the last study was done.

Another 10%, or 104,000 New York-area Jews, live in households with incomes of less than $35,000 a year, and report they are struggling to “make ends meet.” Experts say this group of near poor is often more vulnerable than the poor because they are ineligible for government benefits.

The more detailed examination unveiled this week found higher levels of poverty in vulnerable neighborhoods, as well as an increasing spread of poverty in New York beyond the traditional centers of poor Jews.

Communal leaders and poverty experts in attendance at the meeting this week were not optimistic about the new findings.

“This conference is in itself kind of disappointing,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the former president of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “When I was young and idealistic, I believed that in the future a conference on Jewish poverty would not be needed.”

Instead, as presenter after presenter stressed, while the overall poverty level in New York City has declined over the past 10 years, poverty in the Jewish community has increased by 54%. The elderly, large Orthodox families and recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union account for more than 84% of the Jewish poor in New York.

That these groups were suffering the most did not come as a surprise to anti-poverty activists. But the intense levels of poverty came as a shock to many communal leaders. About 85% of Russian immigrants over the age of 65 live in poverty. In five neighborhoods with large immigrant and Orthodox communities, including Williamsburg, the rate of poverty jumped to more than 30%.

But the Jewish poor were not restricted to the old loci of poverty. The study found that in absolute terms, the greatest number of Jewish poor — 97,000 — were among working-age adults. The percentage of Jewish poor in both the Bronx and Queens doubled to 19%. Particularly in Queens, which has 42,700 Jews living in poverty, the study found that many of the poor were isolated from any Jewish communal organizations that might be able to help them.

The sharp rise in both the depth and distribution of Jewish poverty was attributed by the study’s authors, David Grossman and Jacob Ukeles, to the almost 105,000 Russian immigrants who moved to New York during the last 10 years, many of whom arrived nearly penniless.

When discussing the statistics on this immigrant community, Ukeles and Grossman departed from the general pessimism of the day. While the elderly immigrants are still overwhelmingly poor, the poverty level for young adults, ages 18 to 34, is only 29%, suggesting that many are discovering the quick economic success that had been a trademark of earlier Jewish immigrant communities.

In addition, Ukeles and Grossman gave a slightly more encouraging spin to one of the most discouraging findings of last summer’s report, which suggested that the Jewish poverty rate in New York City doubled, or rose 100%, during the past 10 years. The authors now say that because of changes in calculating methods, the percentage of increase should actually be lowered to 54%.

The most hopeful information for most attendees, though, was the mere appearance of the study itself, which they hope will focus renewed attention on poverty, a problem that many communal leaders say remains hidden to most of the community. This detailed study is one of only two or three community poverty studies in the United States, according to Ukeles.

The detailed poverty statistics will also help Jewish organizations improve their services to the poor, said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, vice president for strategic planning at UJA-Federation. “It’s only once you have such detailed data that you can make the proper programming choices,” she said.



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