(Afton Almaraz)
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This Is the “Good” Kind of Welfare

The myth of total community self-reliance

Irin Carmon
June 13, 2012
(Afton Almaraz)

Opposition to public assistance, it seems, ends at home. Raphael Magarik points out that at Commentary, the longtime disdain for various welfare programs has a double standard: It’s OK when the Orthodox do it.

In two separate Commentary blog posts, holding up the Hasidim is partly a cudgel against those assimilating liberals with their universalist values who allegedly aren’t doing as good a job as the ultra-Orthodox in caring for their own. Or, in the words of Seth Mandel, “The liberal/secular inclination to watch Jewish immigrants live in poverty while they pursue vague forms of tikkun olam and global citizenship is surely a failure to prioritize, even if their new pet causes are worthwhile (as many of them are).” That means, he says, that the non-Orthodox Jewish poor are forced into the arms of the state: “The need for outside assistance, often from the local government, is therefore even more crucial for the non-observant.”

This is selective use of data, to say the least. Per Magarik:

Take the overwhelmingly Hasidic Kiryas Joel, the poorest place in America. As the Times reported last year, “half of [its] residents receive food stamps, and one third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs.” And boy, do they have children: The median household in Kiryas Joel has six people, and the median age is twelve. Many of its men learn Torah full-time instead of working, and the community’s low high-school graduation rate would be even lower if its religious schools had real academic standards. These kids are hardly being “socialized to the world of work.”

But while the high poverty rates are slightly misleading because they don’t reflect that vaunted intra-community support, participation in public support programs—the same ones that liberals built and Commentary contributors are on record despising, to wildly oversimplify—is straightforward. There are, of course, differences that conservatives would find significant: You don’t see as many of the negative outcomes (and public costs) of the so-called “culture of poverty,” like drug use and crime. And these families are far less likely to be headed by that right-wing bête noire, the single mother; no one would accuse the Orthodox family of replacing the father’s authority with that of the state. But what you do see is generous availing of public grants to subsidize private activities.

So, it’s a fiction to say that Hasidim are paragons of community self-reliance, no help from the state needed. They clearly don’t think so themselves—or else why devote so much energy to cultivating politicians?

Irin Carmon is a senior correspondent at New York magazine and co-author of The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Twitter feed is @irin.