What Do We Know about Jewish Poverty in the United States?

By The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation

It was almost a year ago that Rachel Garbow Monroe, Weinberg Foundation President and CEO, sent the following email to roughly 40 Jewish federation and foundation CEOs:

I am trying to collate all documentation related to Jewish poverty in the United States. If your federation, foundation, or organization has any data that is relatively recent (completed in the last three or so years), statistically reliable, and points to information regarding Jewish poverty, please send it my way.”

The reason Rachel made this request is clear. The Weinberg Foundation’s mission focuses exclusively on supporting low-income and vulnerable people and families, both in general and within the Jewish community. But the field of poverty alleviation is broad, and philanthropy depends on accurate data to determine how it should invest limited resources in an effort to make a positive impact.

With the help of the CEOs Rachel emailed (we eventually sent requests to more than 70 leaders with a connection to this work), today the Foundation is releasing Jewish Poverty in the United States: A Summary of Recent Research. This report is not new research, but rather it compiles the important work of Pew Research Center, Jewish Federation Community studies, and other sources.

The Foundation was not able to locate as much research as we would have hoped, especially given the extent of the data available to help us understand poverty in the United States at large. But we were able to frame a preliminary knowledge base about Jewish poverty in the US. Here are a few highlights from the report:

  • The percentage of Jewish households earning less than $30,000 is between 16 and 20 percent, according to two major national studies; seven percent of Jewish households earn less than $15,000.
  • New York City and the surrounding region has the largest number of low-income Jewish households in the United States and is an outlier when compared to the ranges included above. According to 2011 data, 20 percent of individuals in Jewish households in New York lived in a household with an income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, accounting for 361,100 individuals.
  • Jewish poverty is concentrated among older adults, Hasidic Jews, individuals with lower levels of educational attainment, individuals who are employed part-time, individuals with disabilities, single women, immigrants, and those who identify as “Just Jewish,” secular, or have no Jewish denomination.

Why is there limited data to tell us what poverty in the Jewish community looks like on a national scale? We don’t know for sure, but we have a few hypotheses. First, the national Jewish philanthropic agenda has expanded, leaving limited resources dedicated to the safety net. According to a 2018 Avi Chai Foundation report on Jewish philanthropy, “big donors tend not to regard [programs for the Jewish aged, poor, immigrant resettlement, aid for Holocaust survivors, and family and child services] as high priority items.” In addition, many people assume that there is very little poverty in the Jewish community. This assumption is not completely unfounded – we need to acknowledge that according to Pew Research Center data, Jews exhibit the lowest percentage of households earning $30,000 in annual income compared to any other religious group. However, according to the 2011 Special Report on Poverty by UJA-Federation of New York, “there are twice as many people living in poor Jewish households today as there were in 1991,” and this growth is not limited to the populations of Russian-speaking and Hasidic Jews. Also, data on Jewish poverty is in large part dependent on community studies completed by Jewish Federations. These studies, focused on demography and trends within local Jewish communities, are hard to compare against each other – the wording of questions is not consistent and they cover a much broader topic than poverty alone.

So where do we go from here? On March 19, the Weinberg Foundation will host a National Convening on Jewish Poverty in San Francisco, following the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) International Conference, which will feature a broad conversation around this issue. We know we need to build upon the data we already have to better understand low-income individuals and families within the Jewish community. We also need better mechanisms to share best practices from successful programs, while maintaining sensitivity to geography and special populations. Finally, the Jewish philanthropic sector needs to confirm and advance its commitment to protecting the safety net.

Today, in addition to its report on Jewish poverty, the Foundation is releasing six concept papers, authored by our exemplary breakout session leaders, on different aspects of Jewish poverty:

Advancing Research on Jewish Poverty
A more unified approach to measuring economic deprivation and vulnerability.
Led by Alan Cooperman (Pew Research Center) and Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz (Jewish Federations of North America)

Innovative Approaches to Combating Hunger
How two Jewish federations are leveraging technology and data to decrease hunger and increase dignity in their communities.
Led by Alexandra Roth-Kahn and Abbe Pick (UJA-Federation of New York) and Raquel Romirowsky (Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia)

Jewish Poverty in the Media
Why are poor Jews rarely found in media portrayals of the American Jewish community, and how can the media make Jewish poverty a more urgent concern?
Led by Jane Eisner (Forward)

No Wrong Door
One Jewish federation’s approach to addressing poverty in our community.
Led by Sarah Abramson and Amanda Badolato (Combined Jewish Philanthropies)

The Silent Predictor
Exploring the intersection of gender and Jewish poverty.
Led by Naomi Tucker (Shalom Bayit)

When More Than Half a Billion Dollars is Not Enough
The efforts and challenges faced by the Claims Conference and its partner agencies, such as in Chicago, in addressing the unmet need of vulnerable Holocaust survivors.
Led by Miriam Weiner (Claims Conference) and Yonit Hoffman (CJE SeniorLife)

We hope you will read the papers and engage in a national conversation. The Foundation will also be posting videos of select sessions of the National Convening on Jewish Poverty soon after the event concludes. We have a lot to do to ensure that low-income Jewish families get the support they need to find a path to economic self-sufficiency. Let’s get to work.

If you have ideas about how we can advance the agenda to improve the lives of low-income Jewish individuals and families, please reach out to jhornstein@hjweinberg.org. We’d love to hear from you.