One of Every Six Canadian Jews Now Lives in Poverty, Study Finds
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One of Every Six Canadian Jews Now Lives in Poverty, Study Finds

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A surprising number of Jews in Canada — one out of every six — lives in poverty, according to a study just released by the McGill University School of Social Work.

The study, conducted by Professor Jim Torczyner, soundly debunks the myth that “all Jews are wealthy.”

The study, released Nov. 9, was conducted by Torczyner in association with the Canadian office of the Council of Jewish Federations and with the assistance of Statistics Canada.

The poor Jews constitute some 50,000 individuals, many of whom are classified as “invisible poor”– they are a minority among Jews because they are poor and a minority among the poor because they are Jews.

Released under the title “The Persistence of Invisible Poverty Among Jews in Canada,” the study began as a major research project funded by the CJF. Its purpose was to examine the dynamics and changing demographic nature of Jewish families in nine selected Canadian cities.

A databank derived from the 1981 census was created for use by the university’s School of Social Work Demographic Studies Center, initiated in 1981 with a grant from the Graduate Research Council.

At the conference, Torczyner stressed that lifestyles have changed. “In the 1940s, everyone knew who was poor and also who was pretending to be rich. It’s different today.”

He highlighted that poverty among Jews is scarcely known, particularly because these people tend to be elderly, women and persons living alone or in smaller family units than their Canadian non-Jewish counterparts.


Additionally, these individuals generally have fewer contacts with Jewish philanthropic institutions. Shame is also a factor, leading to a reluctance to seek assistance.

Three out of 10 of the Jewish poor are elderly, while only 15 percent of Canada’s non-Jewish poor are elderly. In fact, 15.8 percent of all Canadian Jews are over the age of 65, while 9 percent of non-Jews are 65 and over.

One out of three elderly Jewish women are poor, and two out of three who live alone are poor, affecting almost 10,000 Jewish women.

Interestingly, educational achievement is not a significant factor. Some 25 percent of all Canadian Jews have completed college, compared with 8 percent of the non-Jewish population. Fifteen percent of the Jewish poor have completed college, compared with 3.4 percent of the non-Jewish poor.

Poverty rates among Jews are significant in all of Canada’s regions, and fluctuate alongside and in the same direction as poverty rates of all Canadians.

“If we look at the characteristics of the Jewish poor, these are not so different from those of the Canadian poor,” said Torczyner. “It is in part due to certain stereotypes that the Jewish poor in Canada are at such a high level.” At times, he said, “these stereotypes have generated prejudice.”

The Jewish community as a whole has taken action in response to the alienation of the Jewish poor. Bert Abugov, director of the Canadian office of the CJF, spoke of this response. “The report has proven to be a valuable resource,” he said. “The condition (of poverty) is much more pervasive then we once realized.”

He said that some of the data had been made available before. “The fact that this data is reliable and identifiable provides us with an important dynamic to alleviate the situation.”

Abugov mentioned several programs in effect across Canada, varying from community to community, such as services for new immigrants, relief supplementation, scholarships, summer camp subsidies, food bank services and advocacy groups.

In Montreal, Project Genesis is an important community outreach organization. Funded in part by Montreal’s Jewish federation, Allied Jewish Community Services, it provides information, referral and advocacy for the disadvantaged. The homeless can also receive welfare checks at this address, whereas in the past, a residential address was required in order to qualify for such benefits.

Project Genesis Executive Director Alice Herscovitch commented on one major problem today, the unavailability of low-income housing in Montreal. “The situation is very bad. People on welfare receive $470.00 per month. After paying the rent, many have only $70 left to live on.”

In light of the current recession and a forecast of even rougher economic times ahead, the consensus was that the Jewish community is doing what it can to help the poor, but that only government could solve the problem.

“It is only government that has the resources required to solve the problem of poverty,” said Torczyner. “The community can work at getting government more involved.”

He also said discussions have been initiated with the office of the Secretary of State to expand the database to include other ethnic groups beginning in 1991.

Peter Wolkove, immediate past president of the Montreal federation and a member of the executive of the CJF, reiterated one important fact. “The criteria for determining the Jewish poor or other poor are the same. I hope I won’t have to remind people of a line in ‘The Merchant of Venice’: ‘We are not different.'”

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