Surge Of Poor In N.Y. Suburbs Poses Challenge

Survey shows ‘startling’ increases in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester, and among Orthodox, Russian-speaking Jews.

07/17/12
Jewish Week Correspondent
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The clients she sees “are all over the map” in terms of how hard they’ve been hit by the recession, said Peggy Jaeger, Nassau County director of Connect2Care, UJA-Federation of New York’s program to help members of the Jewish community who are unemployed or underemployed.

“Not everyone we see has slid way down the economic ladder,” she said, adding that some people have resources they can depend on, like relatives who are able to help them or spouses who are working. “But there’s no question that there are those people who’ve spiraled down the economic ladder,” reaching the point where they’re struggling to maintain a home and place food on the family table.

For much of the past year, Steven Dobkin was among them, having lost his job as a software developer in March 2011, when the small company for which he was working suddenly went out of business.

A Hicksville, L.I., resident in his 50s, Dobkin finally landed a new position — “353 days later, to be exact,” he said — but it took him hundreds of job applications and at least 10 interviews before doing so. Meanwhile, the six-member Dobkin family applied for food stamps, received assistance from a nearby synagogue, experienced the temporary loss of hot water and got further and further behind in rent.

Dobkin also received help from Connect2Care, joining a support group for people, like him, who had lost their jobs and were in their 40s, 50s and 60s. The group, which still exists, meets at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center, Jaeger’s employer and Connect2Care’s lead agency in Nassau County.

The Dobkins’ story matches those of a growing number of New York-area Jews, according to UJA-Federation’s “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.” The first population survey of New York Jewry in a decade, the study shows that 361,000 Jews in the city and three suburban counties — Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester — are now living in poverty, or within 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline. The number represents 20 percent of all Jews in those areas, up from 15 percent in 2002.

The number of what the study calls “near-poor” Jews — those with incomes of between 150 and 250 percent of the federal guideline — is 204,000 in the eight-county area, or 12 percent of all Jews. Combined, the numbers of poor and near-poor Jews in the eight-county area total 565,000, or 32 percent of the community.

The yardsticks used by the study place the poverty line at $27,000 for a family of three, while the cap for “near-poverty” is $45,000 for a family of the same size.

Many of the study’s figures are “startling,” said Alexandra Roth-Kahn, managing director of federation’s Caring Commission, who oversees Connect2Care. But among the most stunning figures is the one showing the number of impoverished Jews in the suburbs — 28,000 today, an increase of 10,000, or 56 percent, over a decade ago. Suburban poverty among Americans in general grew by 53 percent over roughly the same period, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

What the study doesn’t measure are those who many place in a third category — the “distressed middle-class,” as they’re called by William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, or Jews in “relative poverty,” as it’s termed by Elliot Florchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council.

Just as stunning as the suburban figures are those for the city, where 507,000 Jews — or an eye-opening 41 percent — are poor or near-poor, the study reports. The precise figures are 333,000 Jews, or 27 percent, living in poverty, and 174,000 Jews, or 14 percent, living in near-poverty. Like the suburban poverty, the urban figures hew closely to Census Bureau statistics, which revealed in 2010 that 1.6 million New York City residents — or 20.1 percent of the city’s population — were living below the poverty line.

Within the Jewish community, the two groups most affected by poverty are Orthodox Jews and elderly, Russian-speaking Jews, said Jack Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates, Inc., and a member of the survey team. Of all Jews living in poverty, 42 percent are Orthodox, making them the largest identifiable group in the community that’s poor, while elderly people from the former Soviet Union have the highest rate of poverty, 71 percent.

What the latter number says, “is that older Russians, who came here with little money and a lot of health problems, are not making it,” Ukeles said. “It’s too late for them.” But younger Russians are making it economically, he added, matching the broader Jewish population.

Other populations affected by poverty within the Jewish community include single-parent households, most of them headed by mothers, and those with disabilities, according to the survey.

While communal professionals were stunned by some of the numbers, they’ve known for a while about “the stresses and strains” on community services, said Roberta Leiner, federation’s senior vice president of agency relations. She added that demand for those services has been increasing for a while.

Those with the clearest picture of what’s taking place are service providers on the ground — people like Jaeger; Anita Greenwald, coordinator for Connect2Care in Westchester County; and Alexander Rapaport, founding director of Masbia, a nonprofit soup kitchen network and food pantry in the city aimed at serving needy residents free of charge.

“We had our busiest three months in January, February and March,” said Greenwald, whose employer, Westchester Jewish Community Services, is the lead agency for Connect2Care in the county. She added that she and her colleagues “have seen it all,” from people who’ve lost their jobs but are somehow making ends meet, to those who’ve lost all their assets and rely on gift cards distributed by her agency for food shopping.

Many of those clients “may not look poor,” Greenwald continued, “but they have nothing left.”

Rapaport, meanwhile, has seen the number of Masbia’s clients grow from only a handful when its first sites opened, in 2009, to about 100 per day at each of three sites — Flatbush, Williamsburg and Rego Park — and as many as 200 a day at its Borough Park site. Each site draws a different mix of clients, reflecting the neighborhood in which it’s located.

On a recent spring day, one client at Masbia’s Flatbush site — a 51-year-old native of the former Soviet Union who identified himself only as Mikhail — recalled a time when he donated to Masbia. But he became a client in April, heading to the Flatbush location every Thursday not only for a meal, but also for a weekend package of food.

A fluent speaker of English, Mikhail said he came to the States in 1981 and worked as a technician at a TV-repair shop in Bensonhurst for seven years. But the shop went out of business four years ago, as have other electronics stores, and he began receiving unemployment insurance a year ago. His wife works, and they have no kids, he said, but they need the help.

These new faces of poverty and distress pose challenges to communal professionals, said John Ruskay, federation’s CEO, who added that his organization is “constantly reviewing the most efficient and impactful ways to improve Jewish life.”

One pilot program on the horizon, funded by federation and considered part of Connect2Care, would teach “baby boomers” how to create and nurture a small business. Offered by the Hebrew Free Loan Society, the program will start in the fall and is aimed at those who are struggling in today’s economy, said Shana Novick, the agency’s executive director.

Another challenge will involve defining the “distressed middle-class,” as opposed to the poor and near-poor. Identifying those members of the Jewish community who’ve experienced a dramatic drop of income would have been too costly and inefficient for the study’s authors to do, Ukeles said. But communal professionals are still “hoping to look beyond poverty, and more into need,” as they “drill down deeper and deeper” into the survey, Rapfogel said.

Doing so will help federation officials make the decision over how and where to allocate funds in the future, Roth-Kahn said. In the meantime, federation has allocated $2.3 million to Connect2Care for the current fiscal year, the same amount as last year, and $2.9 million for safety-net funding. The safety-net funds will help “develop coordinated regional systems” that offer such services as case management, emergency cash assistance and food distribution.

One person who has managed to climb out of a bad situation is Dobkin, whose family includes four children, ranging in age from 3 to 19.

He avoided falling into depression, a trap for many who’ve lost a job, by reminding himself that things could always be worse and pursuing such passions as jogging, said Dobkin, who met his wife at a marathon 15 years ago and who calls himself an “optimist.” He’s working in his field again, although the job pays 10 percent less than his previous salary — somewhere in the $80,000 range. And he’s also hoping to give back to the community, perhaps by offering tips to Connect2Care clients who are facing what he once faced. 

Last Update:

07/19/2012 - 12:18

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