November 25, 2004
Jewish Poor Fear Stigma of Poverty
For Albert Osher, life was good. The co-owner of a Fairfax antique store that registered annual sales of $100,000, he enjoyed romantic dinners with his live-in girlfriend, theater and movies. To prepare for his impending retirement, the now-78-year-old New York native stashed away more than $100,000 in savings, a cushion that gave him a strong sense of financial security.
Like Osher, Linda (not her real name) lived well. Growing up on the Westside in a million-dollar home, the closest she ever came to poverty was when her Jewish youth group visited the occasional soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
After graduating from a University of California campus, Linda headed east to Washington, D.C., where she transformed herself from a political junkie into a political player. Between 1987 and 1993, she held several high-ranking positions on the staffs of prominent Democratic representatives and senators. Returning to Southern California to live closer to her family, Linda eventually parlayed her political skills into a local lobbying career.
On the surface, Osher and Linda would seem to make good poster children for ambitious, bright, successful Southland Jews. Dig a bit deeper, though, and the picture is less pretty. For different reasons, Osher and Linda found themselves in dire financial straits that threatened to plunge them into abject poverty.
That they both managed to pull themselves from the abyss in no way mitigates the real, albeit often-hidden, phenomena of Jewish poverty. A recent report by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that nearly one in five local Jews, or 104,000 out of 520,000, earns less than $25,000 a year, with 7 percent living beneath the poverty line. Los Angeles' high cost of living makes it especially difficult on poor Jews, who often go without health insurance and are reluctant to ask for assistance.
"There's a sense of shame and of not letting your peers know about your situation," said Miriam Prum Hess, The Federation's vice president for planning and allocations. "There's a desire to make everything look OK. As a community, our challenge is to preserve people's dignity and make it safe for them to receive needed services."
Osher's downward spiral began in the mid-1990s, when his live-in partner of nearly three decades, Sybil Kerns, fell ill. Wracked with diabetes, anemia and finally Alzheimer's, she needed expensive in-home care and medicines only partially covered by insurance. To help out, Osher dipped into his savings and sold off Kerns' antique doll collection for $30,000. Her care proved so costly, though, that he ended up going through all the money by the time Kerns died in 1999.
After her death, Osher found himself emotionally and financially spent. Nearly penniless, the proud entrepreneur took to eating free meals at friends' and family's homes and hitting them up for loans. Some nights, he said, he went to bed hungry.
To save what little money he had, Osher vacated the two-bedroom house he had rented with Kerns and moved into a small Fairfax apartment. His Social Security and disability checks bought some food but were not enough to cover the rent. His landlord soon evicted him.
Having exhausted his inner circle's good will, Osher found himself on the streets. For an entire week, Osher, then in his 70s, spent his nights crisscrossing town on a bus, boarding at Melrose and getting off an hour and a half later at Santa Monica Beach. He would turn around and make the round-trip again and again and again.
"When you're sitting alone on the bus or walking down the street late at night, you feel all alone," Osher said. "It's a terrible feeling."
These days, he lives safely and securely at Villa Poinsettia in Hollywood, an assisted-living home that he discovered through a friend. Osher volunteers at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center five days a week, greeting folks as they drop by and helping them read.
His monthly Social Security and disability checks cover room and board and leave him with $100 in pocket money. However, Osher rarely spends much of it on himself. Perhaps remembering what it's like to have nothing, he said he gives away what little he has.
"If a couple of people need a couple of bucks, I share it with them," he said.
The story of 39-year-old Linda is less dramatic but no less illuminating about how quickly a person can lose their financial bearings.
So sure of her marketability was Linda that she had no reservations about quitting her well-paying lobbying job in late 2000, because of a personality conflict with a superior. With $5,000 in the bank, a strong resume and a Rolodex full of contacts, she jumped on a plane and vacationed in China. Linda figured it would take no more than two months to find new full-time work.
It took nearly three years.
As the U.S. economy struggled, so, too, did Linda. Her confidence gave way to concern which morphed into worry. Although she had no trouble landing interviews for government and other positions, she was unable to nail down a job. Employers, she said, had piles of resumes on their desks from qualified people just like her who desperately needed a job.
When she ran out of money, Linda took on a slew of part-time work. She tutored students in English and Hebrew, coached children's sports, baby-sat cats and dogs and helped write and edit a college guide for overseas students.
Linda eventually cobbled together enough work to earn about $27,000 a year. Still, she had no sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. Linda stopped eating out and bought everything on sale -- when she could afford it. She had to drop out of synagogue, because she couldn't afford the dues. In an ill-advised attempt to curtail spending, she took to skipping her prescription drugs.
Financially, Linda barely got by, living paycheck to paycheck. Then a crisis nearly bankrupted her.
In spring 2003, Linda felt an acute internal pain. Despite her intense discomfort, she put off visiting a doctor for several hours, because she had no health insurance.
Finally, she broke down and went to the emergency room. After three hours of tests, doctors ruled out appendicitis but could not identify her problem. As if that wasn't reason enough to worry, they also handed her a $600 bill.
Linda, with nowhere to turn, asked her father for the money. Although relieved to pay off her debt, she said she experienced a certain amount of humiliation having to ask him for money in her late 30s.
She realizes she was lucky. Some poor people have no one to bail them out, and if her condition necessitated surgery, she could have slipped tens of thousands of dollars into debt.
Recently, Linda found a new job with benefits. She works in the admissions office of a Los Angeles college. Looking back, she still can't believe that someone as educated and hard-working as she is ended up as part of the working poor.
"I have a good job, a 401(k). I guess I shoud feel happy," Linda said. "But in the back of my mind, I'm a little worried. I kind of feel like I should run out to the UCLA job board and write down leads, just in case."