Teetering on the Brink of Poverty

People frequently talk about the poor, people who have incomes so low that they are barely scraping by and need government assistance for food, housing, medicine and other basic life needs. But what about those who make a little more — just enough money to survive above the poverty line — and thus are ineligible for government help? These are people who, if they lose one paycheck, can’t pay their rent or buy food for the week. In New York State there are over 3 million households whose economic status is “near poor,” which means they are hovering just above the poverty line, which in 2007 was $21,027 for a family of four with two children under 18. Many of the near-poor are known as “working poor,” earning too much to qualify for government benefits, but not enough to pay for their basic necessities. Many of the working poor would have considered themselves middle-class before they lost their jobs, or their health deteriorated, or a spouse died.

While poverty is a hot issue these days, the issue of nearpoverty attracts less notice. Considering that 56% of all the Jewish near-poor are female, this is a big issue for Jewish women. Women make up a large majority of the near-poor population for a variety of reasons: many Jewish women who are married do not work, or they work in a job that supplements a partner’s income but would not alone be sufficient to support a family. If that partner’s income is lost through job layoff, injury, divorce or death, many women will not have the skills or monetary resources to recover. Women in these situations, who have never dealt with their finances, must not only care for themselves, their homes and their dependents, now must also handle the budget and pay bills. Furthermore, many of these women cannot receive help from the government because they don’t fall below the federal poverty guidelines, even though they do not make enough money to survive and support a family.

Education and advocacy can help. For example, the current method for setting the poverty line is based on an outdated formula from 1960 that assumes households use one-third of their income for food. Congress has the power to “raise the floor” of poverty by changing how the poverty line is determined, and you can press for this change with elected representatives. But because entrenched political positions may mean this alteration will be slow to arrive, consider other ways to get involved too. With skyrocketing food costs and an economy in recession, local food banks are feeling a major pinch. Organizations like Mazon (mazon.org) fund food banks across the country and around the world, and are always looking for donations and volunteers. More systemically, support legislation that helps protect the near-poor from sliding into poverty. Lobby your representative to support paid sick leave via the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1843, S. 910), or talk up the need to push through the Child Support Protection Act of 2007, still in committee in Congress. In addition to New York City’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, organizations such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Economic Policy Institute supply current information about these and other pieces of legislation that can help lift people from the margins of poverty.

Stefanie Greenberg was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and became the organization’s Volunteer Department Manager. sgreenberg@metcouncil.org.