Jewish Affluence in U.S. is a Myth; Close to Million at or Near Poverty Level

The mythical affluence of American Jews is, to a surprising extent, a myth perpetuated in part by the Jewish community which until recently has been blind to the large areas of poverty among fellow Jews all over the country. That disclosure was made here by Mrs. Anne Wolfe, a sociologist and program consultant in the Intergroup Relations and Social Action department of the American Jewish Committee. In a paper entitled “The Invisible Jewish Poor” delivered at the annual dinner meeting of the AJCommittee’s Chicago chapter, Mrs. Wolfe revealed that nearly one million American Jews live at or near the poverty level. Mrs. Wolfe gleaned her information from studies of numerous surveys and statistics compiled over several years by national, local and Jewish groups. “We find significant indication of the extent of poverty in the Jewish community from the National Opinion Research Survey on income related to religion” which, Mrs. Wolfe said, “ascertained that 15.3 percent of Jewish households had income under $3000 a year” compared to 15.6 percent of Catholic and 22.7 percent of Protestant households. “Fifteen percent of six million people is a large number,” Mrs. Wolfe remarked, representing 700000-750000 people. She pointed out that if the figures for the “near poor”–those earning under $4500 a year–were added, the number of Jewish poor would be much greater, exceeding 900000.

Thus, while surveys continue to find that the median income of American Jews on the whole is higher than the general national median income, there is more poverty among Jews per capita than among either Catholics or Protestants, Mrs. Wolfe’s paper revealed. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics Lower Living Standard estimates that a family of four should have a minimum annual income of $6500. This is a national average.) Mrs. Wolfe noted that the problem of Jewish poverty was related to the lower death rate among Jews at younger age and the lower birth rate among Jewish families which results in a larger number of elderly people in the Jewish population than in the general population. “The community studies reveal that something like 60 to 65 percent of Jews living in poverty are over 60 or 65 years of age,” Mrs. Wolfe stated. The major problem facing the elderly poor is housing and deteriorating neighborhoods from which they are unable to escape and which increases their loneliness, isolation and emotional and physical insecurity. “But there are significant numbers of poor who are not old folk and I think it is important to explode the myth that the Jewish poor are the Jewish old,” Mrs. Wolfe said. “This other group–30-35 percent of our poverty group–is made up of single, unrelated people or families, many with young children, some headed by one parent. There are Jewish families receiving Aid to Dependent Children (welfare)–a fact that is usually greeted with disbelief. In New York City alone, it is estimated…that one quarter of a million Jews subsist below a level of $3000 a year, and another 150000 live at near poverty on income below $4500,” Mrs. Wolfe said.

POVERTY HITS ELDERLY, ORTHODOX AND HASSIDIC, FOREIGN BORN, YOUNG JEWS

She observed that a large proportion of the non-elderly Jewish poor in big cities are Orthodox and Hassidic Jews. “There are 80000 Hassidic Jews in New York City and this group is the third largest poverty group in New York,” Mrs. Wolfe said. Foreign born Jews also account for a large percentage of Jewish poverty. A Columbia University survey showed that 10 percent of the New York Jewish population earns $3000 a year or less but the figure for foreign born Jews is 15.7 percent, fairly similar to the Puerto Rican community where 16.3 percent are living under $3000 a year, according to Mrs. Wolfe. Her study embraced the Jewish poverty situation in other American cities, notably Miami and Los Angeles which are attractive to elderly people because of their mild climate, and Philadelphia. A study of the files of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services showed about 8000 elderly Jews receiving public assistance and more than 10,000 eligible for old age assistance who, for a variety of reasons, did not apply Mrs. Wolfe reported. “These make up a figure of 18,306 indigent elderly living in households on incomes below $4,000 a year,” she said. “An interesting example of blind spots relates to wealthy Miami Beach. In an area of that community called South Beach, it was ascertained in 1969 that 40,000 people were clustered in an area of some 40 square blocks. Of these, 80 percent are over 65 and 85 percent are Jews. The average annual income is $2,460; thousands are living on less than $28 a week for rent and food,” Mrs. Wolfe reported.

“In Philadelphia, a study conducted by the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service of that city reveals what some of us have long suspected–that we are like anybody else,” Mrs. Wolfe said. The study covered a sample of Jewish men and women representing an active caseload of more than 700 persons. The age ranged from 17 to over 65 years, and about half of them were in their prime work period, in the ages between 21 and 50. One-third of the persons coming to the Vocational Service were older than 50, and 17 percent were under 20. About two thirds of the persons coming for help with employment had incomes in the previous year below $2,600 and one in six had an annual income of $4,000 or more,” Mrs. Wolfe reported. She added that “Limited education was found to be an important factor among poor Jews, half of the job seekers having less than 11 years of schooling, and one in five with less than an eighth grade education. Here too our blind spots operate,” Mrs. Wolfe remarked, “Because of the high proportion of young Jews in college today, and our tradition as the ‘People of the Book,’ we tend to overlook the earlier generation that has a less impressive educational background.” Mrs. Wolfe noted that the Hassidic community “has a built-in resistance to secular education, particularly at high school and college levels” and as a consequence few Hassidim have college degrees. This lack deprives them of the economic advantages which higher education normally brings.

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