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Hasidic Enclave Is America’s Poorest City

The spotlight shines on Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

Marc Tracy
April 21, 2011
A street in Kiryas Joel, New York.(Richard Perry/NYT)
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.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.