The number of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high. According to recently released U.S. Census Bureau data, 43.6 million people — or one in seven Americans — lived at or below the poverty threshold in 2009. This represents the third consecutive increase in the percentage of Americans living in poverty in that many years. To get a better sense of how Jews in New York are faring, The Jewish Week spoke with William Rapfogel, CEO at Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. He sounds off on why the poverty levels are outdated, the new demographic that is calling Met Council for help, and why Jewish families need a crash course in basic financial literacy.
Q: The new numbers show a sharp rise in poverty levels. What is the situation like among Jews in New York?
A: One of the things that is fascinating to me is that they continue to use outdated statistics. When I say that, I’m talking about the poverty levels: $22,000 for a family of four, even in the lowest-cost states in the United States, that’s simply ridiculous. In New York, L.A., Chicago, and Miami, you can’t live on twice that amount for a family of four.
The most recent Jewish poverty study conducted by Met Council and the UJA-Federation of New York identified 226,000 Jewish New Yorkers living at or below 150 percent of the poverty level ($33,000 for a family of four). But that was back in 2003. The next study is due out in the beginning of 2012. Anecdotally, what are you finding?
It’s off the charts. Since 2008, we have been working harder than ever to provide whatever assistance we can. We are providing 15,000 households with kosher food every month. In January 2008, we were providing 8,000 households with food. It’s nearly doubled.
Have you seen an increase in requests from new demographics?
In addition to helping the poor and working poor, we now get calls from middle class, formerly comfortable individuals who have never had to ask for anything. In many ways, they are financially illiterate. One couple came to see me after the husband was already out of work for six months. When listing their expenses, they forgot the $600 a month they were paying for cable and Internet. They had every sports channel in existence. Their lifestyle was such that it was never an issue. The people who are fighting every day to make ends meet know exactly where they are spending their money. We’re spending a significant amount of time helping people go over the aleph bet of doing a budget.
Which new Met Council initiatives are achieving results?
We began training people in electronic health record management. It’s the fastest-growing area because of health care reform. We graduated our first class two weeks ago, and 22 out of 25 had jobs by graduation making $50,000-plus a year. We’ve also had successes in 30 to 35 cases in which people were about to be thrown out of their homes and had 15-year mortgages. We were able to switch them to 30-year mortgages, which they could afford.
Do you think the economy is improving, or will it get worse before it gets better?
I’m always an optimist, but I believe you have to prepare as if the pessimists are right.