Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Poor Among Us


Social Stratification

     Every Human society, including the most ancient and primitive, has always exhibited social stratification. This means that even the earliest men were subject to social inequality. During the many centuries in which men lived in caves and spent all their time hunting for food, some men were more capable of bringing home the daily food than was true of the majority of hunters.  Such men possessed more than one wife. These wives were put to work producing goods which increased the ascendancy of the men who owned them. The earliest civilizations and even later societies such as the Roman and the Greek considered wives as the property of their husbands.

      As a sign of this female subservience to men, Roman women wore a link of an iron chain around the left ankle. Over many years that custom was converted into the wearing of a wedding ring on the left hand.     In the most primitive societies, social inequality has only two dimensions. In such societies men dominate women and the old dominate the young. Thus, sex and age are the only criteria by which inequality is measured and enforced.

    In advanced industrial societies, social inequality is more complex and far more developed than among our primitive ancestors. In 21st-century America, there is a vast difference between the richest and poorest citizens. In fact, even the wealthy are divided in a hierarchy of riches.

     The American economic structure ranges from the homeless living on the streets of Los Angeles to the super-rich whose wealth is beyond the imagination of the average American citizen, whose individual income is only $49,000 annually or about $85,000 for a household with two earners and two children.

     The Survey of Consumer  Finances is published annually by the Federal Reserve Board. According to that survey, the median white net worth was $153,500 in 2016 and the median family net worth was $933,700. Black families’ median net worth was $17,600 and black family mean net worth was $138,200 in 2016. It is significant that 9% of white families and 19% of black families and 9% of black families had a 0 or negative net worth.   Likewise, business ownership among whites is about 14% but only about 7% among blacks and Hispanics. 

     Some major differences between white and black Americans are that whites are more educated than blacks, are more likely to receive an inheritance, and are less likely to be single parents. White wealth generally increases with age, reflecting saving behavior which is almost non- existent in the black community.

The Homeless

     A pyramid of social stratification in the United States demonstrates that the poorest Americans are the homeless. It has been estimated that on any one night there are about two million homeless adults and children living in this country.  This problem is most visible in our biggest cities like New York  and Los Angeles.

     In New York City, about 78,000 people qualify as homeless. Of these, 3,588 live in the open without shelter of any kind. A number of such people are drug addicts, including alcoholics, while others are mentally ill. In addition, some working poor cannot afford  the rent needed to live indoors. Some of the homeless are patients discharged from mental health facilities and former inmates of jails and prisons.

     American communities have responded toward the homeless in two ways. There is a majority of local politicians who subscribe to the “broken window theory” first proposed by George Kellogg and James Q Wilson. According to these two social scientists, “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence.” Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows would soon be broken. Serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. “The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.” Those who subscribe to this view support community policing, which allows the police to round up the homeless, charge them with crime of disorderly conduct, and force them to go elsewhere with the result that the same thing will happen to them in yet another community.  

     In New York City and other large communities, 90% of the homeless have temporary shelters. However, about 10% live on the streets. These are almost all drug addicts or people with severe mental illness or those who prefer independent living in the street. These are often people who do not want to conform to the shelter system, which has curfews or sobriety rules. A good number of other homeless live in the streets because elected officials and permanent residents in all neighborhoods don’t want the homeless near them. Yet the Coalition for the Homeless has promoted safe haven shelters which require no drug tests and less paperwork. The United States Department of Urban Development pays for the housing of those who suffer from a disability, including addiction or mental illness. There are a number of outreach groups who seek people in parks or on sidewalks or between railroad tracks who need help.

    These efforts to help the homeless have largely been defeated by drug addiction and alcoholism, so that neither the broken window theorists nor the social workers have been able to solve the homeless problem in the United States.       

Six Reasons Why People Become Homeless

There are many different reasons an individual or family falls into homelessness. While it’s usually a combination of things, like losing a job or falling behind on rent, sometimes the cause of homelessness is one tragic incident, like losing a partner, that changes someone’s living circumstance. So why do people become homeless? Learn a little more about the most common reasons, and meet a few neighbors who may not even realize are experiencing homelessness.

Whether from losing a job, or not being able to find a job in the first place, unemployment is one of the major causes of homelessness.. No income, no way to keep up with living expenses. While the number of unemployed people fell to 7.4% the past few years, the number of people living in poverty has not declined. At 46.7 million living under the poverty line ($20,000 a year for a family of three), that’s 15.8% of the United States population.

Individuals with an established support network and steady income can be forced into homelessness if a major health issue or family emergency arises. For people already living below the poverty line, managing everyday incidents such as having a car towed can push someone into homelessness even faster. One major health issue can derail an individual’s life, including a family member’s poor health or a death in the family. Even divorce can quickly spin into homelessness, as it can be expensive and impact income significantly. Often these homeless experiences are short-term and transitional, especially for families.

     In cities like San Francisco and New York, affordable and available housing is in short supply. But even outside these urban areas, people are feeling crushed by the rising cost of living. Since 2007, the number of poor households increased by 27% — 11.25 million families are paying 50% or more of their income toward housing. According to The Department of Housing and Urban Development, families with only one full-time worker making a minimum wage couldn’t afford rent for a two-bedroom market-priced apartment anywhere in the country.

    “15 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and am still undergoing treatment. During this time I became homeless because my landlord evicted me so they could find a tenant to pay higher rent. Since then I have had difficulty getting housed again because of the limited amount of affordable housing available in San Francisco.”          Young people are often considered the “invisible homeless” — and there are fewer statistics for this group as they don’t normally engage with services. For them, homelessness may begin as couchsurfing or crashing with friends, which is less drastic than sleeping outdoors. What we do know is that youth — including children and unaccompanied youth — make up almost 8% of the homeless population — during a year around 550,000 youth and young adults up to age 24 experience homelessness, with 380,000 being under the age of 18.

Similarly, those in the LGBTQ community face a unique set of challenges and are often more at risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers. According to the Williams Institute, the most common factor to LGBTQ homelessness is family rejection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Youth are often met with harassment and discrimination when they try to seek out alternative housing, which contributes to their disproportionately growing rates of homelessness.

It’s easy to take your support network for granted, when you have one. But those who don’t are sharply aware of the absence. Support networks can come in many forms: a family member, friend, co-worker, or even the greater community, as we see on “Hand Up.” Knowing that someone believes in you can make all the difference.

One thing to note is that even with state-funded programs to provide a safety net, these are often not enough to avoid homelessness. Currently, the median Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefit for a family of three is approximately one-third of the poverty level. According to the overall U.S. 2014 Point-In-Time Count, on any given night, nearly 20% of the homeless population had a serious mental illness. A subset of this group consists of homeless veterans, struggling with PTSD and mental suffering. Those living with mental illness have challenges with everyday aspects of live like self-care, and often remain homeless for longer periods of time. There are major barriers to employment and consistent management of available services.

In 2012, one in five people in the U.S. who experienced homeless also struggled with chronic substance use problems — 131,000 people altogether. For chronically homeless individuals who also suffer addiction, permanent supportive housing is key because it combines stable housing with intensive support and services. This means access to stigma-free, meaningful services along with housing.

   Thus, the homeless constitute the lowest level of the American pyramid of social stratification, followed by the working poor.


     Since 1991 the number of Jewish poor in New York has doubled although the Jewish population of New York increased only 14% between 1991 and 2019.   The  eight counties affected are Bronx,  Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester.

     These numbers include 48% of children, who live in poor or near poor households. This means that in two decades, the poor segment of the Jewish community has grown from 12 percent to 20%. These poor Jews need food and affordable housing. 

    Housing in  New York City is phenomenally expensive. In Manhattan, a one bedroom apartment can cost $3,500.00 a month and two bedroom apartments are rented for $5,000.00 to $6,000.00 a month.

In Brooklyn, a one bedroom “Studio” rents for $3, 016 and 2 bedroom apartments rent for over $5,000,00.  A “studio” apartment combines kitchen and living room and bedroom. It is exceedingly small.

In Queens, apartments rent for $3, 560.00 to $6, 335.00 for two bedrooms, and on Staten Island, rents range from $1,680.00 to $2603.00.

The income of unskilled workers in New York begins at $15, 977 for those who lack a knowledge of English and /or have no other skills to $ 64,000 for unskilled workers with some work experience.

A New York City cab driver earns about $29,000 a year and a waiter earns about $38,000 annually. These wages are far too small to provide more than a minimum existence in New York and are typical of the working poor or near poor New York residents.

Between 10% and 20% of Jewish households in New York earn less than $30,000 a year and 7% of Jewish households earn less than $15,000 annually. Over 360,000 Jewish New York residents live 150% below the federal poverty level. This is best understood by inspecting this chart:

                           The Federal Poverty Level

Number of people                   Income               Number of People

One                               $12,760     $30,680         Five

Two                               $17,240     $35,160         Six

Three                            $21,720     $39,640         Seven

Four                              $26, 200    $55,150         Eight

Jewish poverty is concentrated among the old and among Hasidim (pious ones), whose education is limited to the study of religious texts and who therefore have no skills that may be used to earn a sustainable wage.

Jewish poverty is aggravated by the myth that all Jews are well off if not very wealthy. This myth is perpetuated by anti-Jewish hatemongers who pretend that “the Jews have all the money.” This propaganda is believed by many Jews, who are telling each other “I have never seen a poor Jew.” Yet, the fact is that there are in 2021 twice the number of Jews living in poverty than was the case in 1991.

 In an effort to alleviate the suffering of the Jewish poor, the Harvey and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation arranged a Conference on Jewish Poverty in March 2019 in San Francisco. More than 200 people from across the United States attended. The conference discussed ways and means of dealing with poverty and considered such consequences as the stigma associated with being poor. According to the conference speakers, between 16 and 20 percent of American Jews earn less than $30,000 and seven percent earn less than $15,000. These Jews have lower levels of education than is needed to earn more money and/or involve single mothers who need money to feed their children and are caught in the dilemma of paying for child care while working cheap jobs which leave insufficient funds to pay nurseries. 

Children are the most vulnerable victims of poverty. Therefore, according to the “Special Report on Poverty” included in the Jewish Community Study of 2011, 35% of Jewish children In New York lived in poverty at that time.

The orthodox Jews in New York face an additional problem besides poverty. They are the targets of blacks who assault and beat these defenseless Jews daily. Orthodox Jews are easily recognized by their black hats, black clothes, long skirts, and long sideburns as well as fringes hanging down from their undergarments. Blacks know that these Jews are defenseless as they will not carry guns, and the De Blasio administration in New York refuses to protect them because the assailants are black. The media will not report assaults on Jews by blacks, who are protected from arrest and prosecution because blacks are a privileged minority within the New York criminal justice system. The so-called civil rights advocate Al Sharpton preaches hatred of Jews, as does the black Muslim leader of the Nation of Islam. Like the European Jews murdered during the Second World War because they were defenseless, the New York Jews are also defenseless until they learn to carry guns and take advantage of the second amendment to our constitution. It needs to be recognized that so called Hispanics also attack Jews in New York, for they too enjoy beating and even killing defenseless Jews.  

The New York Police Department has found that hate crimes against Jews were up 67% in 2019. An orthodox Jew just walking down the street was attacked from behind on the head. The attacker ran away. Another orthodox Jew was attacked by a group of men who shouted :”You f…. Jew.”  When a white man made a verbal remark concerning a black man, the media rushed to condemn this “attack” as a heinous crime, but physical violence against Jews receives no coverage at all by the New York media.

     Poverty in New York and elsewhere in the United States has influenced members of Congress to help alleviate this condition. Representative Jerrold Nadler has introduced a bill in Congress which is designed to increase the tax credits which poor citizens can claim.  According to Nadler, a family of four children could claim a 50% credit and those with six or more children could claim a tax credit of 85 percent.

Shalom u’vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

Home ] Up ]