Not all Austrian Jews applauded at premieres at the Burgtheater, sipped coffee between two lectures at the University or could afford lavish "Sommerfrische" in one of Austria's beautiful resorts. Most of Austrian Jews were less than affluent and many of them even very poor.
Unlike in Germany, no statistics were ever kept about the wealth of different religious groups, so only indirect evidence is available. It suggests that more Jews were poor than affluent. The percentage of employed Jews (54%) was almost identical to that of other Austrians (53%) in 1923. Many Jews were businessmen who were hard hit by the breakup of the Empire and the subsequent loss of markets. The Great Depression and difficult international trade was another blow. The number of Jews who could afford to pay taxes to the IKG (Jewish community) declined from 60,000 in 1927 to approximately 48,000 six years later. In 1934, about 55,000 persons were receiving some kind of financial assistance from the IKG; it paid for 65% of all Jewish burials.
Already in 1821, when only few Jews lived as "tolerated" persons in Vienna, their representatives tried to find a way of getting rid of "the foreign Israelite beggars effectively from here", since none of the Jewish inhabitants who "does not loudly or in silence complain about the big misery and many inconveniences aroused by the swarm of wandering Israelite beggars".
Several decades later, the Jews of Vienna again felt embarrassed about the "shame and scandal" of impoverished Jews who came to Vienna asking for financial aid. Trying to control this phenomenon, they distinguished between "dignified" [“wuerdig”] and "undignified" ["unwuerdig"] beggars, providing support only to the former group and not to "professional beggars" who made a living of it and did not try to find proper employment to earn a living.
The outbreak of the First World War brought real poverty and misery to the Jews fleeing to and living in Vienna. The first refugees who reached Vienna before the end of August 1914 were met with considerable sympathy, especially by their co-religionists. They were not expected to remain in the capital for long, and until at least 1915, food shortages were not too serious in Vienna.
'Native' Viennese Jews reacted ambivalently to the poverty of these Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe). Jewish newspapers appealed to their readers to supply the refugees with jobs, clothes, and shoes, which were desperately needed with winter approaching. Jewish officials praised the work done by the government to establish children's homes, schools, kitchens, and libraries for the refugees. Dr. Bloch's Oesterreichische Wochenschrift stated in March 1915 that the friendliness of the Christian-Social mayor and administration of Vienna toward Jews would not be forgotten by them. As time went on and tens of thousands of the refugees remained in Vienna far longer than anyone, including the refugees themselves, had anticipated, resentment against them began to grow for consuming the already short supplies of housing, food and fuel. Upper-class Jews now began to seem them as a threat to their goal of complete social acceptance by Christian Viennese. Meanwhile, poorer Viennese Jews, fearing economic competition from the refugees, saw them as a danger to their existence.
When Galicia was temporarily recaptured from Russia in the summer of 1915, the City Council of Vienna put pressure on the refugees to leave by removing their public assistance and offering free transportation back to Galicia. The number of Jewish refugees consequently declined from 125,000 to 77,000 by October 1915. For many of those remaining, however, a return to their native places was impossible. A new Russian offensive in 1916 sent another 200,000 refugees (both Jews and Gentiles) fleeing to the west, 40,000 to 50,000 of whom reached Vienna and other parts of Lower Austria. The loss of most of Galicia, one of the prime breadbaskets of the Austrian half of the Empire, also meant that grain and meat shortages became ever more acute in Vienna. An offensive launched by the Central Powers in 1917 finally enabled most of the refugees to return to their homes. By April 1918, Vienna had a population of 38,772 refugees without means, of whom 34,233 were Jews. By the following March there were not more than 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees left in Vienna.
The mortality rate of war refugees rose so drastically that at the Viennese Zentralfriedhof, the main cemetery, a new Jewish section had to be opened. A grim example for the dire economic situation is the fact that in 1918, the last year of the war, 83 % of all Jewish funerals were free or very inexpensive "4th class" funerals, meaning that more than 4/5 of the families did not have enough money to pay for the burial of relatives.
Vienna boasted traditional welfare and aid organizations such as the "Chevra Kadiha Association for Pious and Charitable Deeds" (founded in 1764), the "Association for Support of Orphans in Need" (1860) and various other organizations funded by the Jewish community or private donors, which operated soup kitchens, provided clothes and money, but their ability to help efficiently was limited. In 1840, the philanthropist, pedagogist and merchant Joseph Ritter von Wertheimer (1800-1887) established an organization providing vocational training for thousands of Jewish children. Seeing a connection between the productivity of Austrian Jews and their struggle for equal social and political status he wanted "to break the prevailing prejudice that Jews were work-shy". After initial resistance by the government which was not interested in encouraging Jewish apprentices to settle in Vienna, the programme became successful after the liberalisation of the Trade Regulations in 1859. By 1875 the organization supported 258 apprentices learning shoemaking and carpentry, turning and machine production and placed them at its own expense with gentile masters. Fifteen years later it was sponsoring over 1,300 Jewish apprentices in the craft trades in Vienna.
The foundation of another philanthropist, Moritz Baron Hirsch (1831-1896) provided during the First World War mainly for war refugees. The fund was administrated in Vienna and tied to Austrian National Bonds and thus became a victim of post-war inflation, another reason for the dire situation of Galician refugees.
Joseph Roth has described the bitter fate of immigrants from Galicia and of war refugees in his book Juden auf Wanderschaft ("The Wandering Jew"). He claimed that there was no fate more bitter than that of an Ostjude. They had to rely on middle-class welfare, had difficulty finding a decent job due to the high number of local unemployed and were hated and despised by Jews and Gentiles alike. "In such a lane lives the little Jewish tailor. But if it were only the street! His flat consists of a room and a kitchen. According to the inscrutable laws God rules the Jews, a poor Eastern European tailor has got six or more children, but only rarely an assistant. The sewing machine rattles, the ironing board is on the pastry board and he takes the measurements on the bed. Who looks up such a tailor?"
The Jewish socialist and journalist Bruno Frei depicted in 1920 a miserable picture of Jewish life in Vienna. In moving eyewitness accounts he stressed the fact that the majority of Viennese Jews lived in rather desperate circumstances. He went to the poorest quarters in the Leopoldstadt, took photographs and noted their most urgent problems. He encountered sick, undernourished children, dark, most, pest-infected and crowded flats where even basements and storage rooms were occupied by tenants, many of them sharing beds or sleeping in shifts. Jewish Mothers occasionally even offered their babies to well-to-do families in newspaper ads, because they could not support them any longer.
Even before the First World War there had been a severe housing problem in Vienna. In 1910, there was an avarage of 1.24 living in every room in the city, including kitchens, front halls and bedrooms. During the war, the housing question was aggravated not only by the influx of (not only Jewish) refugees, but also by the lack of residential construction. The Ostjuden were often blamed by anti-Semites for these hardships and they claimed that these refugees were living in comfortable quarters while 19,000 honest locals had no place at all to live. "The whole issue could be resolved overnight if only the unwanted guests were forced to return to their provinces."
The democrat and social reformer of Jewish origin, Julius Ofner was highly popular with his Jewish voters, because he not only demanded the security of a basic income for everybody and reformed Viennese social affairs, but also supported the Jewish peddlers.