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Hasidic Enclave Is America’s Poorest City

The spotlight shines on Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

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A street in Kiryas Joel, New York.(Richard Perry/NYT)

The Times has a feature today on Kiryas Joel, New York, the ultra-Orthodox Satmar enclave (about an hour’s drive north-north-east of New York City) that is the American town with a population of over 10,000 with the largest percentage of residents living below the poverty line. The debate over it is reminiscent of the argument in Israel that widespread Haredi poverty is sapping the state’s resources.

The data is simple: A religious injunction against birth control leads to lots of children, which leads both to lots of mouths to feed and lots of women taken out of the workforce; and another religious injunction encouraging religious study leads many men to spend most of their time in relatively un-remunerative activity (many also only speak Yiddish, further limiting their economic capability). “I wouldn’t call it a poor community,” says the village administrator. “I would call it a community with a lot of income-related challenges.” That’s the sort of euphemism with Internet meme potential!

Still, the reality is more complex: Because of a combination of state-funded social services, philanthropy, and private assistance in the form of things like no-interest loans—as well as collective, non-profit businesses like a bakery and a kosher slaughterhouse—America’s most impoverished village does not, to outward appearances, seem to be all that impoverished. And this has provoked criticism from some elected officials, who question whether the town’s residents merit the state assistance many get, including Medicaid, housing vouchers, cash assistance, and state-funded facilities like a post-natal center. (The administrator’s response? “You also have no drug-treatment programs, no juvenile delinquency program, we’re not clogging the court system with criminal cases, you’re not running programs for AIDS or teen pregnancy.”)

And leave it to the Jewish professor to get the best line: “I cannot say as a group that they are cheating the system,” says City College’s William B. Helmreich, “but I do think that they have, no pun intended, unorthodox methods of getting financial support.”

A Village with the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place [NYT]
Related: BoI Chief: Haredi Unemployment Is Hurting Israel’s Economy [Haaretz]

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Dave says:

The bottom line is that these people are utilizing existing state and federal aid programs, and their substantial voting power, to receive lawful assistance. I am sure there are those that abuse the system, as there are anywhere, but there is no systemic illegality here. Essentially they are being criticized for exercising their rights while having the audacity to not allow their community, despite its lack of economic opportunity, to degenerate into the kind of hell hole that we generally associate with such income levels. Perhaps rather than libeling this community in the Times with vague accusations of “unorthodox methods of getting financial support,” we should be praising them for their remarkable ability to maintain a beautifully peaceful community in the face of an economic reality that ravages so many others. The Jews always took care of one another and pulled each other up to whatever extent possible. The Satmar, though many may find their way of life distasteful and insular, have maintained this facet of Jewish life in their community. It’s a shame it isn’t more common elsewhere. Maybe we should ask why in place of real concern and responsibility for our fellow Jews (Satmar included) we instead gawk and awe at the “Jews’ Jews” in the Times.

Amen, Dave. I agree with what you said. Look, it isn’t how I choose to live but if they are follow the laws laid out and provide each other with support, what is the issue?

Just because it is unfamiliar, does not make it wrong.

Take a look at the FLDS in Utah. They have multiple “spiritual marriages” and consider themselves married even if it is not legal however they will file as a single mom to 8 children and get the welfare… That seems a bit more shady to me.

It’s actually a little west of due north of NYC, not east.

Frank says:

True – just because it’s unfamiliar doesn’t make it wrong, but as one who lives in the 21st century, I wonder at what point the true believers decide to join the modern world.

They are my brother Jews, but I wonder how they look upon my Reform lifestyle?

Wonder if they would let me come stay a few weeks. I admire their dedication to the ultra-orthodox lifestyle and Torah learning.

They have as much right to our social services an any other American. I applaud them for their lack of homelessness & lack of drug problems.

Yisrael says:

Exhibit A for the argument that cultural factors, not economic ones, are primarily responsible for high rates of criminality and degenerate urban neighborhoods. Pick out the other poor communities in this least and I would venture a guess that the % of 1-parent families with absent fathers is off the charts.

The main message I got from the article is that “poverty” is a pretty one-dimensional descriptor. Presumably many other neighborhoods that meet the Census’s definition of poverty have other things that make them different too.

MARTY says:

I FIND IT OBSCENE THAT ALL OF MY FAMILY WORKS & PAYS TAX’S THAT GO TO HELP SUPPORT THE LIFE STYLE OF OTHER PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO DO NOTHING FOR THE GREATER SOCIETY OTHER THEN TAKE FROM IT. PEOPLE LIKE THESE IN ISRAEL ARE ACTUALLY PUTTING ISRAEL IN DANGER BY NOT ONLY SUCKING FROM THE MONEY TREE BUT BY NOT JOINING WITH THE IDF OR ANY OTHER GOVERNMENT OPERATION TO HELP THE OVERALL NATION…

val sklar says:

I lived near there for 19 years. I happened to be helping someone at social services and the Hasidic women applying or receiving welfare were dressed better than me(accountant with a husband that’s an accountant as well).
Yes, they use the system as they do threaten the county with their voting block.
There is a lot of bartering among themselves; so of course, they look on paper to be impoverished. All the forms go by is “EARNED INCOME”.
Due to the intermarriage/breeding, there is alot of mental and other diseases that burden the county health systems as well.
Now they want special education funds to teach these disabled/challenged children. They just want the school built by county workers and the funds….not the special ed teachers?!? There is a big hoopla over that….Religion and State separation…! OY
And if you shop in the stores near the town and they happen to be in the store…they ignore you and will be as rude as take the very shopping cart out of your hand to use. They treat us like that…some folks treat them back equally….its sad…I have left business’s as I see the rudeness building on both parts and one never knows when it will explode in front of ones eyes. I can not handle cruelty on either side towards another human being.

There is no excuse for unprovoked aggressive behavior. Let us learn through the counting of the omer that balance, lovingkindness, appreciation, harmony, etc. is at the root of what is deeply Jewish tradition, practice and life.

What we are considering is not right or wrong, but sustainable. How are our large cities, based upon consumerist values, going to survive? “Enclaves”, with barter systems, profit or nonprofit enterprises serving the collective need, etc., are actually worth studying. If we feel “outside” of them, let’s better look at the state of what we feel “inside”. Erect your own eruv and live in it.

no kneegrows=no crime! Kneegrows= know crime!

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Hasidic Enclave Is America’s Poorest City

The spotlight shines on Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

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