Living on the Edge: Economic Vulnerability in the Jewish Community

As we celebrate freedom and prosperity it is important to remember that there are many Jews who live on the economic edge, face substantial financial insecurity and do not have the means to fully engage in Jewish life.

by Fern Chertok and Daniel Parmer

Next week is Thanksgivukkah, the rare convergence of the Hanukkah commemoration of reclaiming the freedom to worship and the American celebration of prosperity. The American Jewish community has much for which to be thankful and is, in large measure, extraordinarily successful in terms of income and educational attainment. As we celebrate freedom and prosperity, however, it is important to remember that there are many Jews who live on the economic edge, face substantial financial insecurity and do not have the means to fully engage in Jewish life.

We and our colleagues have been working with the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island to better understand and address economic vulnerability in Jewish households. The picture that emerges from our analysis is very concerning. Upwards of half of Jewish households in the Alliance’s catchment communities face financial insecurity. In epidemiological terms, if half of our families are at risk for economic hardship, the Jewish community needs to be in the business of prevention.

Why should the larger Jewish community be concerned with the situation in Rhode Island? It is true that Rhode Island families, including its Jewish households, were especially hard hit by the recession of 2008-2011 and the state has among the highest rates of unemployment in the nation. But as other communities, such as New York City, are finding, economic insecurity is more widespread in the Jewish community than we previously assumed.

Our analyses for Rhode Island show that even families earning the median income have to “stretch” to meet their basic expenses for housing, food, transportation, childcare, and health. These basic costs do not include property taxes, student loans, prescription medicines, medical co-pays, school supplies, clothing or synagogue dues.

With limited or no surplus in their budget, the economic stability of these households can change month to month. Loss of hours at work or an unexpected expense such as a car repair, or the need to replace a major household appliance, can catapult a family earning even the median income into debt or delinquency.

Economic insecurity is not a uniquely Jewish problem. However, the community’s approach should embody Jewish values and traditions, such as preserving the dignity of households in need. In keeping with the spirit of Hanukkah we also need to ensure that even families experiencing financial fragility can continue to fully participate in Jewish life.

What is needed are strategies both to bolster the communal safety net and perhaps, even more critically, to help families before their economic problems become catastrophic. For example we recommend the development of funds for meeting the immediate needs of Jewish households facing sudden economic turbulence. If a Jewish household needs money to fix their car to go to work or to repair a broken furnace, there should be a way to get it quickly and with few barriers.

Just as we celebrate our thanks for the freedom to worship and our economic success stories, the Jewish community needs to be equally committed to addressing the economic vulnerability in its midst. The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, like most other Jewish federated communities, faces a host of difficult decisions about how and where to best deploy its resources. How do we aid the poorest, both in the Jewish community and beyond, how do we prevent our families from falling further into economic instability and delinquency, and just as critical, how do we boost struggling Jewish households into positions of greater economic security? The confluence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a time to redouble our efforts to safeguarding the economic wellbeing of community members – something else of which the Jewish community can be proud and thankful.

Fern Chertok and Daniel Parmer are researchers at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute of Brandeis University. A copy of their new report, “Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island,” is available at