Friday, April 22, 2011

The Welfare State

Ghoti. When I was in about 7th or 8th grade, I remember a teacher spelling that word on the blackboard. (Yes - those writing boards at the front of the classroom used to be black and were written upon with something called chalk.) He then asked us to read it. We all read it the way it seems it should be read. But the teacher said that it spelled ‘fish’.

How? Simple... ‘gh’ as in the word ‘cough’ - ‘o’ as in the word ‘women’ - and ‘ti’ as in the word ‘nation’.

What does that have to do with Kiryas Joel? If one reads the article in the New York Times one will see the connection. Things are not always as they seem.

The picture in Kiryas Joel is one of a middle class lifestyle. And yet it is the poorest place in the nation. According to a census bureau survey 70% are below the poverty line. Median income is $17,929. How can this be? I don’t think the answer is that simple. First it is a tribute to their determination and resourcefulness. A determination and resourcefulness that is admirable. It is also a tribute to a cleverness that knows how to work the system... a cleverness that is not all that flattering.

They are determined to live modestly and do not live high on the hog. They spend their limited income wisely. And the rabbinic leadership has instituted some guidelines to help them in that goal:

To avoid stigmatizing poorer young couples or instilling guilt in parents, the chief rabbi recently decreed that diamond rings were not acceptable as engagement gifts and that one-man bands would suffice at weddings.

The Satmar Chasdim who make up this community are very close knit. They believe in Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh – every Jew has a responsibility towards his fellow Jew. The wealthy truly help the needy. This results in some pretty decent resources. There are free loan societies galore. And many services that are needed but cannot be afforded are subsidized by the wealthy. Satmar does have its share of wealthy Jews. But the vast majority live live under the poverty line. The Tzedaka of the wealthy is not enough to insure the needs of the typically large Satmar family.

But Satmar also very cleverly knows how to get the most out of the system. In this case their poverty works for them. It makes them eligible for all sorts of welfare and family assistance programs. And they take full advantage of them. For example half the residents get food stamps. They structure businesses as non-profits so as to avoid paying taxes. From the article:

A kosher poultry slaughterhouse, which processes 40,000 chickens a day, is community owned and considered a nonprofit organization. A bakery that produces 800 pounds of matzo daily is owned by one of the village’s synagogues.

They also structure their educational system to maximize government help without sacrificing the quality of their religious education:

Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

Politicians trip all over themselves to get their vote and promise them everything. And they usually get it:

Because the community typically votes as a bloc, it wields disproportionate political influence, which enables it to meet those challenges creatively. A luxurious 60-bed postnatal maternal care center was built with $10 million in state and federal grants.

While all this is legal, it is nevertheless quite troubling. When one thinks of poverty stricken areas one does not tend to think of the New York Times picture of Kiryas Joel. Poverty usually refers to people living in crime ridden blighted areas. That is who federal and state aid is meant for. Not the kind of people and environments pictured in the Times. And yet, based on the letter of the law these people have cleverly devised a way to supplement their low incomes.

That together with the help of their own philanthropists and modest lifestyles enables them to live a middle class lifestyle – albeit a very simple one.

What’s the problem… you may ask? It’s all legal – isn’t it? No one is stealing from the government - after all. The problem is that one can still make a Chilul HaShem even if what they do is legal. By taking maximum dollars from the government – dollars that are clearly intended for those who do not live a middle class lifestyle – Jews are seen as manipulating the system to their own financial advantage at public expense. And then defending it in the face of images like the picture in the New York Times. That really looks bad in my view.

Many will respond that why shouldn’t a Frum Jew get it if the drugged out irresponsible welfare mother gets it? If they are both eligible – they are eligible. Period.

Well legal doesn’t always mean moral. In my view supplementing a poverty level income so that they can live a middle class lifestyle is not equivalent to the needy single mother who may be homeless and cannot afford to feed her child. And is afraid to walk the streets at night! Just because these Satmar Chasidim for the most part live a responsible and religious lifestyle does not morally entitle them to take the same amount of money from the government that a single welfare mother living in a slum does.

And I am not entirely convinced how honest many in this community are about reporting income accurately. Deception is not a foreign idea there. I recall quite clearly taking a walk down Lee Street in the Willimsburg section of Brooklyn a few years ago. Lee is the shopping area there. As I passed one store that seemed quite busy – the sign on the door in English read ‘Closed’. But under that sign in Yiddish spelled with Hebrew characters it said ‘Open’. It seemed like business as usual. Nobody thought anything about this deceptive practice.

Why bring all this up now? Aside from the basic immorality of the issue - it is getting the attention of government officials:

One lawmaker, Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, a Republican who represents an adjacent district in Orange County, has demanded an investigation by state officials into why Kiryas Joel received grants for the center. “They may be truly poor on paper,” Ms. Calhoun said. “They are not truly poor in reality.”

Some may see her as an anti Semite. I don’t really know one way or the other. But living as they do it is not too hard to predict that a lot more people like Ms. Calhoun will be getting elected. Is this the image we want of ourselves?

What then are these people supposed to do to live a middle class lifestyle? Here is a fact that might hint at a solution:

Most residents, raised as Yiddish speakers, do not speak much English. And most men devote themselves to Torah and Talmud studies rather than academic training — only 39 percent of the residents are high school graduates, and less than 5 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Several hundred adults study full time at religious institutions.

It’s time to think about changing those numbers.