Monday, February 02, 2004

The Jewish Poor I

One-hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews were crowded into the tenements of the Lower East Side, living in squalor and beset by physical and mental illnesses. Many worked at jobs that paid far less than what they needed to subsist on and many died young. There were few public programs to turn to and communal resources could scarcely meet the needs of these immigrant families. We did not need surveys to tell us that these Jews without money were poor.

We now wallow in population studies, all of questionable reliability, but none less reliable than the one featured two weeks ago in the lead article in this newspaper which proclaimed the breathtaking mythology that “poverty among New York City’s Jews is at historic highs.” This is incredible nonsense. Are we poorer than we were in 1904? Are we poorer than we were during the terrible years of the Great Depression? Why are we being fed a fabricated claim?

There are other misleading but self-serving claims, such as New York Jews are poorer than other whites and that “while New York’s overall poverty rate fell significantly between 1991 and 2002 – from 25 percent of households earning the Federal poverty level or less to 21 percent - it nearly doubled among Jews during that period.” All of this is presented uncritically, without regard to methodology or logic or experience or whether those who peddle these self-serving exaggerations should be trusted.

Before I am skewered by our povertycrats and more gently assailed by those in our ranks who believe that it is a good thing to exaggerate our poverty claims since “everyone else does it,” let me readily acknowledge that there are many poor Jews. It’s not possible to know how many because surveys of the poor are inherently suspect and the one that is now being featured inflates the numbers for certain subgroups while it neglects the situation of the considerable portion of our poor who are not included in the Federal definition of poverty. These are our working poor, many of them Orthodox Jews with large families whose income is insufficient to allow them to meet their basic needs.

As economists and sociologists have reported, the situation of America’s working poor is deteriorating and approaching catastrophic proportions. As elsewhere, the working poor of our community get far less attention than those who are classified as poor but who are better off because they know how to exploit the flawed arrangements that have been established to help the financially needy. Those who are classified as poor but who receive a multitude of benefits, including Medicaid, housing subsidies, food vouchers and much more are in many instances significantly better off than many who work full time. When poverty agencies present misleading statistics, they are at the same time neglecting a great number of the working poor.

The flawed survey rests on two shaky pillars: Data regarding the Jewish elderly and Russian Jews. Both are minefields and it is necessary to tread carefully. Our elderly are in the aggregate financially comfortable. They are, however, afflicted by serious problems, including physical disability and sickness, loneliness and depression, and a lack of mobility which makes them needy and deserving of social services but not necessarily poor. There is also a tendency toward insecurity which induces the sincere but misleading belief that they are at the door of the poorhouse. Our inborn respect and empathy for the elderly result in unwarranted credence being given to exaggerated claims of senior citizen impoverishment.

It’s true that most of the elderly live on more or less fixed incomes, but it’s also true that they have relatively fixed costs. They are not battered by rapidly escalating costs of housing and medical coverage and they are scarcely affected by conspicuous consumption. There are programs that provide them benefits that are not available to non-seniors, irrespective of their financial health, and they have benefited over the years from tax provisions that encourage multiple savings and pensions accounts. For the first time in U.S. history, there has been a socio-economic reversal in that the parent generation is better off than their adult children.

There are elderly poor and they deserve help but this is no justification for fanciful claims. From an economic standpoint, Jews have done well in America. Let’s not proclaim that we have failed.

Russians are the other shaky pillar of the flawed survey. There are poor Russian Jews and here the elderly stand out because they did not have educational and other opportunities for advancement. Among the rest, the story is one of much opportunism and remarkable socio-economic mobility, although much of it is masked by the familiar pattern of the relatively newly arrived being overly engaged in the underground economy. This is in fact true of other ethnic groups that make exaggerated poverty claims. In the event, for Russians – and others – the development of poverty statistics on the basis of self-reporting is, to put the matter gently, a flawed technique. People who are on the dole should not be asked, in effect, whether they are eligible to be on the dole.

The recently released Federation population study of New York Jews sharply challenges the estimates advanced by local Russian Jewish groups of how many Jews from the Former Soviet Union now live in the city and this data also directly contradicts the absurd claim made by the promoters of the poverty study that tens of thousands of Russian Jews have moved back to the city because they are impoverished.

There are other flaws implicit in the essentially self-reporting of poverty, including a failure to recognize that of the two components of the charedi – or very religious – sector of Orthodoxy, the yeshiva-world component is probably in worse financial shape than the Chasidic component and the gap is growing rapidly. This situation and the corollary situation of the working poor will be discussed in a second article.