The Reality of Jewish Poverty in New York

Poverty (NY)
We strive to be a caring community. We can recite these words easily, but we also need to take steps to make them real

by John Ruskay

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is speaking face-to-face with members of our community. We discuss a broad range of issues about Jewish life in New York, Israel, and throughout the world. However, when the conversation shifts to Jewish poverty and I share the magnitude of the numbers, the response is often disbelief or denial. “I just can’t believe it.” “Can’t be so.” Or more frequently, “I just never knew.” Truth be said, Jewish poverty is a painful reality in the New York community. And if we’re going to do something about it, we need to understand where it is and who is affected by it.

Ten years back, the “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2001” reported that one in six Jewish households in New York was considered poor.* The “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 Special Report on Poverty,” released this week, reveals that the number has increased to one in five – 360,000 people in Jewish households live in poverty, and 45 percent of the children live in poor or near-poor households. These are staggering numbers and difficult – almost impossible – for many of us to comprehend. Why is the reality of Jewish poverty so hard to accept?

Some initial thoughts. We don’t want to see Jewish poverty because it challenges our shared narrative. We are children of immigrants who came to the goldene medina with very little, worked hard, and “made it.” Ours is the success story of a people who today enjoy unprecedented affluence, influence, and acceptance. It’s an extraordinary narrative that is true for large segments of the Jewish population in America – but not for all.

We also don’t know what we can’t see. While ours is a city and region of dazzling economic and ethnic diversity, middle- and upper-income New Yorkers often reside and socialize at a distance from lower-income New Yorkers. If poverty is not part of our world, we can believe it does not exist.

To those who question the existence of Jewish poverty, I extend an invitation. Join me at Masbia, restaurant-style soup kitchens in Brooklyn and Queens run by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Join me at Project ORE, operated by the Educational Alliance in Lower Manhattan, which provides meals and the embrace of our community to the Jewish homeless. Stand with me on food lines in the days before Passover, when hundreds of people wait for hours for a package of groceries provided by Met Council. Visit their affordable housing for needy seniors and hear how lives are transformed by these homes; then find out how 5,000 apply for every 100 apartments. Come and visit the small businesses owned by Russian-speaking Jews that we helped launch through our micro-enterprise program with the Hebrew Free Loan Society. See the one-stop shops we support to provide case management, benefits enrollment, emergency cash, and financial counseling – all in one location.

We strive to be a caring community. We can recite these words easily, but we also need to take steps to make them real. To do this, we need to first understand the nature of Jewish poverty in our community and accept its reality so we can actualize Isaiah’s admonition to “feed the hungry.” I hope you will read the report here. No one agency or philanthropy will eradicate Jewish poverty. And we cannot underestimate the role of government, which provides the basic safety net for poor of all backgrounds. It’s only together, with our eyes and hearts open, that we can make things better. I believe we must and we can.

*By definition, a poor household has an annual income of less than 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline. A senior living alone is considered poor with an income of less than $15,000; for a three-person household the threshold is less than $27,000.

John Ruskay is Executive Vice President and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York.