Friday, June 22, 2012

Is Jewish Poverty the Wave of the Future?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a young relative of mine about school tuitions. He has Charedi Hashkafos; and is a professional in the medical health field. I would define him as a moderate Charedi which I believe comprises the vast majority of Charedim.

I had lamented the fact that some of our religious educational institutions have a minimum tuition payment per family no matter how poor they were. I saw no justification for that. If someone is so poor that he can’t afford to pay anything he ought not to.

Surprisingly, my young relative supports the minimum tuition policy of his children’s schools. He said it would be one thing if the parents were poor through no fault of their own. However, when parents are poor by choice - that is an entirely different matter.

In his children’s Charedi elementary school a great number of fathers are Avreichim who subsist on very low incomes – even with working wives. Obviously, they can use all the help they can get. But why should a working Charedi parent like my young relative be required to subsidize so many of these parents?

His income is decent enough for him to not live in poverty. Under normal circumstances it might allow him to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle. But with 5 children in the school system at about 10,000 per child (low ball estimate for his children’s schools – don’t know their exact tuition is), taking $50,000 out of even an income is double of that amount - would leave him very little for things like mortgage payments, Kosher food for a family of 7, electricity, heat, automobile expenses… and all the other necessary requirements of living in 21st century America. Especially after taxes. (Tuition payments are not tax deductable - that money is taxed too.)

Needless to say, he is on a partial scholarship. Is he expected to now come up with additional dollars to subsidize parents who are so poor (by choice) - that they can’t afford to pay any tuition at all?

So I can see his point… and have come around to his position.  There is a way out for parents that are so poor (through no fault of their own) that they cannot even pay the minimum. There is an  organization in Chicago that helps the very poor by paying those minimums for them.

All of this raises the larger question about people choosing to be poor. Of course no one actually chooses that. Everyone would rather have lots of money. By choice, I mean choosing a Hashkafa or lifestyle that minimizes opportunity for good jobs. By the same token - communities like these tend to have very large families. Are we required to support them with our charity dollars if their Hashkafos lead them into impoverished lives?

I have always had trouble with this issue. On the one hand, one might say it is laudable for people who are so committed to their ideals that they will choose poverty over violating a principle – even if I don’t agree with that principle.

For example in the hard core Chasidic world - it is a matter of principle for them to not learn secular subjects at any more than a basic level, or to speak the English language too well, considering it Chukas HaGoy (or something very close to it). College is all but forbidden because of the fear of negative outside influences both in the classroom and outside the classroom.  Aside from that attending a college interferes with their goals of remaining isolated form the rest of the world because of the ‘Tumah’ so prevalent in it.

As such they do not get the kind of education that would enable them to get decent jobs. There are exceptions. Like those who have a natural talent for business; or those with close relatives in successful business that ‘take them in’; or the occasional decent paying job of a mega business like B&H Electronincs that is owned by a Chasidic family and who has given their mostly religious employees a decent income. Although probably not enough to meet the needs of the typical large family they have. 

But most hard core Chasidim  do not have these opportunities and have to opt for more menial jobs that don’t really provide anywhere near the income they need just to maintain even the most modest of lifestyles.

It is this demographic that is the fastest growing one in all of Orthodoxy according to a recent survey. Can we – the entirety of the Orthodox Jewish community - afford to continue subsidizing them? With their demographic growing and the rest of Orthodox Jewry becoming a smaller percentage of the whole? I don’t think that continuing to subsidize the poor of these communities is sustainable.

But there is an even bigger problem with being poor by choice. Communities whose members are poor by choice tend to take advantage of the welfare system. The vast majority I would assume does so legally. They qualify because their incomes are legitimately low enough.

But is it morally justifiable for those who are poor by choice to use a system designed to be a safety net for the poor who have no choice? I don’t think it is. And yet using the welfare system is almost de rigueur for this community. It is something that is advocated by the religious leadership. The feeling being that as long as it’s legal – why not maintain the religious standards that enable them to be continue to be isolated from the ‘Tumah’ of the rest of the world?

But what is even worse in my view is that using the welfare system is not always done legally. Sometimes people hide their incomes which if revealed would not qualify them for government aid. The temptation to hide cash must be tremendous. Unless one makes at least a six figure income, these families can hardly make ends meet even with government subsidies. I don’t know how many welfare cheats there are. But I suspect that there are more than a few.

It is hard to not have sympathy for people who have been indoctrinated to choose poverty over an education for religious reasons. Those who hide cash are probably not hiding millions. They are hiding income that they use for their daily expenses. But that does not make it any less illegal or less immoral.

And then there are those endless number Meshulachim coming into Shuls every morning - the majority of whom are Chasidim (at least from my observations here in Chicago). There has definitely been an increase in the numbers of them in the last few years. Some may blame this on the negative economy. I’m sure that’s part of it. But I think that the growing numbers of Chasidim with large families who can’t or won’t find decent jobs is just as much of a factor – if not more so.

I don’t know. I am not feeling very optimistic about our future if this is our fastest growing demographic. Because if it is, we will be turning into a nation of impoverished Jews whose means of survival will depend on the Welfare State – some of whom will feel the need to cheat the system just to survive.

This can’t be what Judaism is about. Being holy means more than just isolating oneself from the world.

My guess is that this system will eventually implode. Although to be honest I don’t see it happening any time soon.