Sunday, July 01, 2018

Charedi Poverty in Israel is Endemic

Beitar children - 60-70% of their families are tens of thousands of shekels in debt
Is ignorance really bliss? Is it true that what people don’t know may not actually hurt them? Those 2 cliché based questions  may be actually be truer than I thought. I have always believed that knowledge is power. The more you know the better off you are.

But if one reads Jonathan Rosenblum’s column in Mishpacha Magazine this week, one might answer yes to both questions. At least as far as the Charedim in Israel are concerned, ignorance about how poor they actually are is in part why they seem so satisfied with their financial state. That was made clear at the annual conference the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs attended by Jonathan. How poor are they? From Jonathan’s column:
Poverty remains endemic in the chareidi community. The percentage of households living in poverty (defined as an average income per family member of less than half the national median) is 52% versus 8.7% for the non-chareidi Jewish population, according to government statistics. And the depth of the poverty is deeper in chareidi households, meaning that poor chareidi households are on average farther under the poverty line...
Fifteen percent of chareidim have had to forgo food at some point in the last year, and 28% of households experience some degree of food insecurity… 
(An) estimated… 60–70% of families who live in Beitar, a chareidi Jerusalem suburb, have accumulated debts in the tens of thousands of shekels…
Chareidim are more likely to have forgone medical treatment due to financial considerations — 13% versus 8% — and dental care — 53% to 32%. Chareidi women over 40 are only two-thirds as likely to have had mammograms as women in the general Jewish population, and chareidi families are only about half as likely to have private medical insurance — 27% versus 51% in the general population.
Despite all of this only  7.7%  consider themselves  poor.  And 71% are happy with their financial situation. And they have greater longevity despite their not being able to afford good health care.

Jonathan speculates why this is the case. A lot of it has to do with living in a community where everyone is in the same boat.  If everyone is poor, then that is the norm.  They don’t realize how poor they are. Their lifestyles include living extremely frugally because that is what everyone does.  Same thing borrowing from all the Gemachim (free loan societies). Maxing out credit cards is a way of life. They are constantly in debt. They are Sameach B'Chelko - Happy with their lot.

Although I agree that being happy with what one has is important to one’s overall well being, what is happening to the Charedi world in Israel is a bit more complicated than that. It is not a prescription for a stable community. It is one thing to be happy with a modest income that allows one to support a family in a modest lifestyle. That is a laudable trait that all of us should have. But borrowing from one Gemach to pay another - means that they are always in debt.

Maxing out credit cards will end up getting them into financial trouble – including having their credit cards canceled. (There goes that source if income!) Then there are the 15% who have to forgo buying food  and the 28% who have some sort of food anxiety. They cannot possibly be happy with their lot. Even if they always have a pleasant countenance and attitude in public.

The fact that the average Charedi seems to live longer than non Charedim is only half the story. Because their inability to afford proper heath care means that some of them will get sick and even die unnecessarily. That is not a positive situation.

I wonder how happy they really are in the long run considering all of the above? They may start out that way. But is it sustainable  –  even though everyone there is in the same boat and they don’t look at what others have? I think it might be an artificial happiness that is generated by their common predicament. It enables many of them to be able to survive in relative calm. But for how long?

On the bright side, there is this:
The official rate of male employment has shot up from 37% in 2004 to 52% today. Given the rapid growth of the community in that period, these numbers represent many tens of thousands of chareidi men entering the workforce.
But that still leaves a whopping 48% of the Charedi population that lives in poverty. A poverty that could be eliminated in a generation if only they would stop encouraging all of their men to learn Torah full time for as long as possible no matter what their capablity for that is - and no matter what other talents they may have. This is facilitated by eliminating the study of anything other than Torah. Which leaves then unprepared for the workforce that a majority of them opt for at some point.

Meanwhile Charedi women are educated and encouraged to get jobs and support their husbands . All while fulfilling their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

I’m glad that there has been a surge in working Charedim since 2004. And that  a variety of training programs have arisen to enable them to meet the challenge of a workplace they had no clue about.

But that leaves out those who are unable to take advantage of it. They would have benefited by a secular education given to them along with their religious education in elementary school and high school.

Will the current happiness bubble burst when the financial realities come home to roost? Or when they realize that a disease a loved one had was preventable with the better health care they couldn't afford? I don’t know. What I do know is that they didn’t need to that poor to begin with.

If  only the Charedi leadership would start treating their people like individuals each with their own strengths. Which should be pursued instead of convincing everyone to ignore those strengths in favor of learning Torah full time. That would make their lives better with a happiness that would be more realistic and more sustainable.