Jews have long had a reputation as being among the most successful minority groups in the country. For the most part, they are. But as a new report from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles makes clear, not all Southland Jews live large. While some big machers tool around in BMWs and inhabit Beverly Hills and Brentwood mansions, thousands of less-fortunate community members struggle just to survive.
About one in five local Jews, or 104,000 out of 520,000, earn less than $25,000 annually. An estimated 7 percent live below the poverty line, compared to 5 percent nationally, according to a study titled "Alleviating Jewish Poverty in Los Angeles." In greater Fairfax, an area with a high concentration of seniors and immigrants, an estimated one in three Jewish households lives in poverty.
"There's an enormous number of Jews who live at or below the poverty line, and I think it will shock many members of our community to see how many people just scrape by," Federation President John Fishel said.
In light of the stark findings, The Federation plans to make fighting Jewish poverty an even bigger priority, Fishel said. The agency has already allocated funds to Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) to hire new employees to focus on the need of the working poor. Around the country, Jewish agencies have undertaken several ambitious programs. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Jewish Family Service helps poor clients pay outstanding utility bills. In New York, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, has built four buildings for the elderly poor with federal funds.
Jews in Southern California have a harder time eking out a living than their counterparts in other U.S. cities. Los Angeles ranks only behind San Francisco and New York as the nation's most expensive city. Skyrocketing rents, health care and other costs mean poor Jews can afford little beyond the basic necessities, the report said. And the situation appears to be getting worse. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in most Jewish neighborhoods is $900 to $1,200 per month, putting it beyond the reach of the poor and many working poor.
Based on the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) poverty study, the disabled account for 48 percent of the Jewish poor, refugees and immigrants make up 22 percent, non-college educated are 12 percent, seniors older than 65 comprise 9 percent, single-parent homes are 8 percent, and 1 percent is classified as other.
Ironically, some local Jews working for Jewish nonprofit organizations fall into the ranks of the Jewish poor. At a time when executives at the L.A. Federation and other agencies earn upward of $200,000, plus benefits, nearly 20 percent of the 450 full- and part-time unionized workers at Jewish Family Service (JFS), the Federation and five other Jewish agencies earned less than $20,000 as of the beginning of 2004. Many Jewish day school teaching assistants also make less than $20,000.
In preparing its poverty report, the L.A. Federation collected no new data locally. Instead, the agency based its findings on a Jewish population study commissioned in 1997 and a 2000-2001 survey by the NJPS. That the L.A. Federation conducted no recent random samples undermines the credibility of its study, said Pini Herman, a demographer and author of the 1997 L.A. Jewish Population Survey.
"It looks like they grabbed their numbers out of thin air," said Herman, who was not consulted for the new survey. "The data fails to account for mortality, migration and movement up and down the economic ladder. I think it is intellectually dishonest."
Fishel said he stood behind The Federation's study, adding that he thought information from the 1997 data was still relevant.
The increased patronage of SOVA by local Jews reflects how much tougher things have become for them, said Paul Castro, executive director of JFS, the food bank's operator. About 1,000 Jews visit SOVA twice monthly for free groceries, a 15 percent increase from last year and a 100 percent hike since 2002, he said.
"From the street level, the economy doesn't look like it's getting any better," Castro said. "It's getting worse."
At JVS, demand for job training and job placement services by poor Jewish refugees and immigrants has jumped by about 10 percent annually over the past four years, said Vivian Seigel, JVS chief executive and president.
A scholarship program for Jewish men and women in L.A. County living at or below the poverty line has also experienced a surge in interest. This year, about 500 young men and women applied for the higher education stipends, up from 350 last year, she said. Skyrocketing tuition costs, combined with surging rents and insurance costs, have placed a heavy financial burden on poor aspiring college students.
"They're being pushed down," Seigel said.
The poor are not the only Jews experiencing financial hardships. The report said an ostensibly middle-class family of two working adults and three school-age children must earn $79,750 to cover living and Jewish community expenses, which include religious school, two weeks of day camp and one month of residential camp. Parents wanting to send their children to Jewish day school would have to come up with another $20,400 per year.
"There are significant numbers of Jews in Los Angeles who can't make ends meet because of the high costs of living [here] and often find that the costs of Jewish affiliation is beyond their reach," the report said.