Poverty: It’s About Us

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By Eric S. Goldstein and Andrés Spokoiny

(First in the series Spotlight on Poverty, a partnership between JFN and eJewish Philanthropy.)

Poverty is about other people, not American Jews.

That’s not something we hear out loud, but it does seem to be a subconscious assumption underlying too many American Jewish conversations – and actions  – about poverty. As leaders of, respectively, the largest Jewish Federation and the global networking organization of Jewish philanthropy, we have the opportunity to take part in many such conversations, and it is constantly striking how many people underestimate the prevalence of poverty in our community.

Even some who give generously to programs that empower the poor may think of poverty as something applicable to non-Jews, or to geographically distant Jews such as those in Israel and the former Soviet Union. To be sure, poverty is a significant problem in those locations – one in every five Israelis is poor – but it is a problem in America, too. In greater New York alone, out of the 1.8 million people living in Jewish households, 565,000 live in poverty or near-poverty. That’s one in every three people in New York Jewish households in economic distress. Many people are just one illness or job loss away from falling into the spiral of poverty. There are many faces to this poverty: isolated and frail elderly, Russian-speaking immigrants, single parents, members of the ultra-Orthodox community, and many other variations within our diverse community. One of the most heartbreaking statistics: 120,000 children in New York Jewish households live in poverty.

Some in the community who are aware of the problem feel paralyzed by the extent of it. But others are simply unaware. And even when funders and communal leaders are familiar with Jewish poverty, many mistakenly believe that between government programs and existing communal programs, all that can be done is already being done. In fact, government funding at the federal, state, and local levels for safety net and employment services has become increasingly unpredictable. Even when government support is stable, it is often insufficient. For example, many New York food pantry clients are already enrolled in SNAP (food stamps) before they visit a food pantry; food stamps alone are not enough to get them through the month.

On a more positive note, government wisely relies on local agencies that know their communities best to connect their clients to benefits. It’s only at the very local level that language, cultural, and practical issues that may impede access to services rise to the surface. An example: Danielle Ellman, CEO of the Samuel Field Y & Central Queens Y (a UJA-Federation partner), reports that when the agency operated a food pantry that gave away the same pre-packaged bag of food to every client, she would walk down 108th Street on distribution days and find some of the food they just gave away in the garbage pails on the corner because they did not meet families’ needs – either because of health issues like allergies and diabetes, or because of cultural reasons, such as peanut butter not being a food that Russian immigrants are used to eating.

These insights indicate the extent of current gaps, but they can also lead to solutions. In this case, UJA-Federation and its partners are piloting a digital choice food pantry system that allows people to choose the food that best meets their families’ needs.

But no agency or approach can tackle such a complex and pernicious problem as poverty alone. Poverty has causes and elements that are economic, social, legal, historical, and more; solutions to it must be similarly holistic. Communal work like UJA-Federation’s must complement other innovative work by independent philanthropists and other leaders – such as the work being done by The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation (among many others) in fighting poverty, and The Nathan Cummings Foundation (among many others) in combating inequality. Jewish Funders Network works to catalyze collective action among Jewish philanthropists on this and countless other issues, but to truly move the needle, communal leaders beyond philanthropy – rabbis, educators, lay people, and others – also need to become involved. Better understanding is a critical first step. One opportunity to learn more about the realities of poverty is a conference UJA-Federation is hosting on May 8th: Tackling Poverty Today. And two days earlier, on May 6th, you can roll up your sleeves and make a difference at Hungry to Help, a community-wide food packing project.

We write this jointly because we believe that in alleviating poverty, independent philanthropy and federations must work together in creative ways. Given the complexities of the field, none of us has all the answers. What is needed is not more of any one approach, but a new field-wide commitment in the Jewish community to make eradicating poverty a priority.

Eric S. Goldstein is CEO, UJA-Federation of New York.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.