Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity Among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island (2013)

Sponsor(s): Alan Hassenfeld, Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island

Principal Investigator(s): Fern Chertok, Daniel Parmer, Ellie Aitan, Joshua Davidson

Population Estimates:

The 2013 study of economic insecurity among Rhode Island Jewish households was not intended to be a population study, although the size of the community shapes the magnitude of economic vulnerability.  For data on Rhode Island Jewish demographics, see links on left side of the Overview page to the 2002 or the 1987 statewide Jewish studies and the 1963 study of the Greater Providence area -  or click on the links provided in this paragraph.

Key Findings:

The 2013 Brandeis University/Cohen Center study of economic vulnerability among Jewish households in Rhode Island -  Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island - was conducted to help the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island with a series of tough decisions needed to address economic need in Rhode Island, especially among Jewish households in the state. The complete report is available through Brandeis' Cohen Center via the link on the left side of this page or by clicking on the report title in this paragraph.

Using a tripartite definition of contemporary economic insecurity – poverty, near poverty, and economic vulnerability – the findings suggest that a substantial portion of Jewish households in the communities served by the Alliance face economic difficulties. 

Quantitative interviews were not conducted for this study. 

Instead, the study utilized a combination of data from multiple sources: (1) data on poverty and economic insecurity in Rhode Island was analyzed from the American Community Survey; (2) a scenario of economic insecurity was developed for four representative communities: Attleboro, Cranston, Providence and Warwick which allowed for an examination of economic vulnerability within the Jewish community; (3)  a scan of services available in Rhode Island communities to deal with the issue of economic insecurity was undertaken; (4) systematic data was collected on requests for assistance at the synagogue level in Rhode Island; and, (5) in-depth interviews were conducted with Jewish individuals experiencing economic hardship. 

Data from these multiple sources contributed to the report, the conclusions and the recommendations for action.

(A) The ACS Survey data are based on the Rhode Island interview sample from the 2007-2011 ACS interviews (3.5 million nationally).  Since the ACS data, similar to Census data, do not include the respondent's religion, the ACS data focus on non-Hispanic whites in Rhode Island. The authors noted: "Although nationwide, Jews are more likely to be college educated and earn slightly more than other White non-Hispanics, data from the 2002 Rhode Island Jewish Community Study suggests that in terms of income, the Jewish population is not significantly different from the overall White, non-Hispanic population in Rhode Island."

The ACS data show -  for non-Hispanic whites and by implication for Jewish households - that statewide, only a small portion (under 2%) of Jewish households fall below the 100% federal poverty guidelines (FPG), the traditional measure of poverty.

• However,, approximately 18% of Jewish [non-Hispanic white] households are estimated to live in near poverty, defined as income higher than 100% FPG, but lower than 200% FPG. One unfortunate hallmark of near poverty is that these households struggle to make ends meet, but earn too much to be eligible for most forms of public assistance.

• Even more significantly, the third category, economically vulnerable, refers to households who earn between 200% FPG and the median income. Approximately 30% of Jewish households in Rhode Island ar estimated to fall into this situation.  

(B) Other data sources focused on the Jewish community specifically, contributing to the overall conclusion of significant economic vulnerability among Jewish households in Rhode Island. 

• The Jewish community economic scenarios suggested that "...Jewish households earning even the median income will struggle to cover their basic needs. Even modest unexpected costs such as those needed to repair a vehicle or a household appliance may strain their economic security. With limited or no surplus each month, families earning the median income face a tenuous economic situation."

• Interviews with Jewish professionals and Jews facing economic hardship indicated  that "...even families earning the median income report having to 'stretch' to meet basic costs of living. Households earning the median income are also characterized by a limited financial safety net such that unexpected costs can be the difference between financial security and debt or delinquency. With fixed incomes, few employment opportunities, and rising costs of living, many seniors and the elderly find themselves in the categories of near poverty and economic vulnerability."

• Data on food pantry use also indicated an increased level of economic insecurity among Jewish households, as the impact of the 2008 economic downturn changed the lives of economically marginal Jewish households.  One kosher food pantry cited in Figure 2 showed an increased demand for kosher food assistance from 73 households in 2009 to 103 in 2010 (a 41% increase); the number of Jewish households seeking kosher food assistance has remained over 100 through 2013.

• Systematically-collected data from congregational Jewish clergy indicated that "requests for abatements of membership dues are increasing while at the same time supplementary school enrollments are decreasing. Rhode Island Jewish day schools report shrinking enrollments and the percentage of households receiving scholarships is higher than the mean for day schools nationally...."

"One striking element of these data is that most of the requests made to synagogues were for relatively small amounts (less than $100), often to tide the household over until the next paycheck. The majority of the requests came from households experiencing difficulty paying bills or providing adequate nutrition to their family. Over half of the households contacting clergy or congregational social workers for assistance were described as underemployed and 12% had experienced a job loss. In almost equal proportions, the requests made to synagogues seem to originate from two populations in need: economically vulnerable households within the congregation and households in poverty or near-poverty from outside the congregation."

Study Notes:

In a related analysis, DataBank Director Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz has examined data on the impact of the economic recession on Jewish households based on survey data from the Jewish communities of Baltimore (2009), Chicago (2010), and Cleveland (2011).  Link to his report at the DataBank is on left side of Overview page, and can be accessed here.


Language: English


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