TORONTO — Following up on last year’s release of Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA’s 2011 National Household Survey, which highlighted that Canadian Jewish poverty rates are on the rise, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has commissioned researchers to conduct a study to better understand how to serve Torontonians in need.
Last year’s survey reported that there are 57,195 Jews living below the poverty line, which translates to 14.6 per cent of Canada’s Jews, compared to 14.8 per cent among the wider Canadian population. Since 2001, the Jewish poverty rate has increased from 13.6 per cent.
More than 24,000 Jewish people in the GTA, or 13 per cent of Toronto’s Jewish population, are living under the poverty line.
Four researchers, led by York University sociologist Randal Schnoor, were commissioned by federation in March “to paint a picture of the face of poverty and talk to people and find out how it is really impacting on their everyday lives,” Schnoor said.
“There are a number of groups we are particularly interested in. For example, the elderly, or Holocaust survivors, immigrants, for example, Russians, single parents, the Orthodox, people with health issues. So we are focusing on those groups and others, but we’re also interviewing individuals who may have their own circumstances.”
Part of this initiative is to reach out to about 250 people over the next six weeks by leading focus groups, conducting individual interviews and doing a 10- to 15-minute telephone survey.
“We carefully extracted names and phone numbers of households that appear to be Jewish and who would be more likely to have financial challenges based on the areas that they live in,” Schnoor said.
“This is a way that we can get a random sample of people. Of course, not everyone we call is going to meet the criteria or be willing to take part, but with determination and many phone calls, we are finding people, and that way, we are going to have a large number of respondents and we’ll be able to develop some statistical results about different aspects of poverty and what areas of their lives are most difficult.”
The same survey will also be available online at http://tiny.cc/jewishstudy.
Sandi Pelly, UJA Federation’s director of capacity building for the social services, explained that a number of Toronto-based Jewish agencies convened by federation, including Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS), JIAS Toronto, Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) Toronto and Kehilla Residential Programme are working together to break the cycle of poverty.
“We commissioned this needs assessment… and the researchers are working under and reporting to our committee… trying to understand what people living in poverty look like,” Pelly said.
“What we really want are recommendations in terms of what we should be doing differently so we can better meet the needs now that we better understand them,” she said.
“I’m excited we have the opportunity to do some primary research to better understand people in our community who are living in poverty and what their personal experiences have been… We haven’t had the opportunity to do primary research in decades, so this is pretty exciting.”
Schnoor said he hopes that this survey will help cast a wider net in the Jewish community to learn more about those in need who are falling through the cracks.
“We want to raise awareness by painting a picture of these people’s lives… The Jewish community, I would argue, does quite a good job developing social service agencies for its own ethnic, religious community, better than many communities. However, there is much more that could and should be done,” he said.
“I think there is a misconception that the poor are uneducated, or lazy, and this has not been the case in the interviews I have done. Most of them have a bachelor’s degree from university, have been very articulate, intelligent people, pleasant to speak with, but have come upon difficult circumstances in their lives, and it often has to do with health, mental health [or] dysfunctional family abuse and the repercussions of that difficult family upbringing.”
He said many people also tend to frame poverty in terms of a lack of material needs.
“The part that people don’t always think about is social isolation, not being able to go out with friends… to a restaurant or a movie because it is simply much too expensive, being invited to a wedding or bar mitzvah and feeling very awkward because there is an expectation of a nice gift. This leads to issues around self-esteem and shame,” Schnoor said.
“Because there’s a misconception that we don’t have poverty in the Jewish community, the stigma is even greater… the shame, the embarrassment of asking for help, of admitting that you’re having financial challenges. It can have a direct impact on one’s ability to participate in Jewish life.”