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The Poor Among Us

The numbers have finally started to come in, and it turns out that much of what we thought we knew about Jewish wealth and poverty is wrong. Several new demographic studies, reported on Page 1 by Nathaniel Popper, indicate that Jews are not the affluent subset within the American population that they are commonly thought to be. They are much more like their neighbors than anyone knew.

Now we know that Jews are, like other Americans, an economically diverse group numbering both rich and poor. We know that Jewish poverty is not a thing of the past, but an ongoing problem across the country. We know that the Jewish poor are not a New York curiosity, but an invisible presence in Jewish communities from coast to coast. Some of the highest rates of Jewish poverty are to be found in booming Sunbelt communities like Los Angeles.

It is true that Jews on average are slightly better off than Americans as a whole, but only slightly so — 15% of Jewish families live in what are defined as low-income households, compared with 20% of Americans overall. Some analysts suggest that the Jewish poverty numbers are inflated because they include young adults just starting out, whose low incomes are not an indication of need. But that would be equally true among non-Jews, if not more so, given Jews’ graying demography.

The new income studies — a national one released last month by United Jewish Communities and a soon-to-be-released Los Angeles study — document what anti-poverty activists have suspected for more than a decade but have been unable to confirm, because nobody was interested in finding out. While endless time and effort is poured each year into measuring and testing Jews’ political views, religious practices and spiritual health, almost no effort has been expended in recent generations — outside New York, that is — to examine Jews’ economic health. Those who oversee these spending decisions simply did not believe there was anything there to find. They assumed that everyone was like them and the people they saw around them.

The invisibility of the Jewish poor is the result of a vicious cycle. They tend not to show up in places where Jewish communal leaders will see them, because they cannot afford the entry fees. The resulting, upwardly skewed income profile of the activist Jewish community seems to confirm what communal leaders think they know, and so they structure the community’s programs and institutions around the presumed affluence of their constituency, driving the poor even further away. In the last decade the trend has reached absurd proportions, with the proliferation of multimillion-dollar programs, funded by charity dollars, to assist the affluent in deepening their Jewish knowledge and involvement while the poor are left to fend for themselves.

Fragmentary statistics from studies in the early 1990s suggest the outcome. By nearly every standard measure of Jewish identity, from synagogue membership to day school enrollment to interfaith marriage patterns, Jewish involvement and affiliation increase as income increases. The poor are shut out.

Now that the truth is apparent, it’s time to start gathering real information. We suspect that the troubling income figures found in Los Angeles would show up in other fast-growing communities like Las Vegas and Tucson, if somebody bothered to check. It’s likely that Jewish community centers, day schools and synagogues could reach far greater numbers if they restructured their finances to eliminate the stigma of income discrimination in the admissions office. It might help if the volunteer boards that govern Jewish institutions changed their recruitment criteria to create representative decision-making bodies whose members understood how their constituents actually live.

Finally, the new numbers should spark a serious re-examination of Jewish attitudes toward poverty as a social and moral question. Most discussions of the issue pit the general needs of the broader society, including poverty, against the specific needs of the Jewish community, beginning with security. Framing it that way makes it a debate between altruism and self-interest. Not surprisingly, self-interest usually wins out, as it must in times of crisis. But the facts show that economic security is a matter of pressing Jewish need no less than homeland security or Middle Eastern terrorism. How to achieve it should be a matter of top priority wherever communal leaders gather.

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