Mutual Aid: The Poorest Place In America, and None Richer

From NYT

The poorest place in the United States is not a dusty Texas border town, a hollow in Appalachia, a remote Indian reservation or a blighted urban neighborhood. It has no slums or homeless people. No one who lives there is shabbily dressed or has to go hungry. Crime is virtually nonexistent.

And, yet, officially, at least, none of the nation’s 3,700 villages, towns or cities with more than 10,000 people has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of mostly garden apartments and town houses 50 miles northwest of New York City in suburban Orange County.

About 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents live in households whose income falls below the federal poverty threshold, according to the Census Bureau. Median family income ($17,929) and per capita income ($4,494) rank lower than any other comparable place in the country. Nearly half of the village’s households reported less than $15,000 in annual income.

About half of the residents receive food stamps, and one-third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs.

Kiryas Joel’s unlikely ranking results largely from religious and cultural factors. Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews predominate in the village; many of them moved there from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, beginning in the 1970s to accommodate a population that was growing geometrically.

Women marry young, remain in the village to raise their families and, according to religious strictures, do not use birth control. As a result, the median age (under 12) is the lowest in the country and the household size (nearly six) is the highest. Mothers rarely work outside the home while their children are young.

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.

The concentration of poverty in Kiryas Joel, (pronounced KIR-yas Jo-EL) is not a deliberate strategy by the leaders of the Satmar sect, said Joel Oberlander, 30, a title examiner who lives in Williamsburg. “It puts a great strain on their resources,” he said. “They would love to see the better earners of the community relocate as well to balance the situation, but why would they?”

Still, the Census Bureau’s latest poverty estimates, based on the 2005-9 American Community Survey released last year, do not take into account the community’s tradition of philanthropy and no-interest loans. Moreover, some families may be eligible for public benefits because they earn low salaries from the religious congregations and other nonprofit groups that run businesses and religious schools. Nearly half of the village’s residents with jobs work for the public or parochial schools.

“If people want to work in a religious setting and make less than they would earn at B & H, that’s a choice people make,” said Gedalye Szegedin, the village administrator, referring to the giant photo and video retail store in Manhattan whose owner and many of whose employees are members of the Satmar sect.

“I don’t want to be judgmental,” Mr. Szegedin added. “I wouldn’t call it a poor community. I would say some are deprived. I would call it a community with a lot of income-related challenges.”

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. Mothers can recuperate there for two weeks away from their large families. Rates, which begin at $120 a day, are not covered by Medicaid, although, Mr. Szegedin said, poorer women are typically subsidized by wealthier ones.

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.”

The village does aggressively pursue economic opportunities. 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.

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.

Statistically, no place comes close to Kiryas Joel. In Athens, Ohio, which ranks second in poverty, 56 percent of the residents are classified as poor.

Still, poverty is largely invisible in the village. Parking lots are full, but strollers and tricycles seem to outnumber cars. A jeweler shares a storefront with a check-cashing office. 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. Many residents who were approached by a reporter said they did not want to talk about their finances.

“I cannot say as a group that they are cheating the system,” said William B. Helmreich, a sociology professor who specializes in Judaic studies at City College of the City University of New York, “but I do think that they have, no pun intended, unorthodox methods of getting financial support.”

All of which prompts a fundamental question: Are as many as 7 in 10 Kiryas Joel residents really poor?

“It is, in a sense, a statistical anomaly,” Professor Helmreich said. “They are clearly not wealthy, and they do have a lot of children. They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.

“They’re not scrounging around, though. They’re not presenting a picture of poverty as if you would go to a Mexican neighborhood in Corona. They do have organizations that lend money interest-free. They’re also supported by members of the community who are wealthier — it’s not declarable income if somebody buys them a baby carriage.”

David Jolly, the social services commissioner for Orange County, also said that while the number of people receiving benefits seemed disproportionately high, the number of caseloads — a family considered as a unit — was much less aberrant. A family of eight who reports as much as $48,156 in income is still eligible for food stamps, although the threshold for cash assistance ($37,010), which relatively few village residents receive, is lower.

Joel Steinberg, who lives in the village with his family and works as a comptroller for a real estate firm, said that before Passover, “the No. 1 project in the community was raising funds for food.”

Mr. Steinberg recalled encountering a neighbor soliciting help door-to-door last fall: “He had received two shut-off notices from his utility company, he’s behind with tuition and that his food stamps gets used up before the end of the month. He’s paying too much for transportation to his job, and he had had an unexpected expense that forced him into debt.”

William E. Rapfogel, chief executive of the Metropolitan Jewish Council on Poverty, said, “Sure, there are probably people taking advantage and people in the underground economy getting benefits they’re not entitled to, but there are also a lot of poor people.”

Mr. Szegedin, the village administrator, said critics tended to forget that state taxpayers were generally spared because thousands of village children are enrolled in religious schools. Nearby, the Monroe-Woodbury school district, with roughly the same school-age population, spends about $150 million annually, about one-third of which comes from the state. (Albany provides about $5 million of Kiryas Joel’s $16 million public school budget.)

“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,” he said. “I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”


Is there a community anywhere in the world where people help each other out and refuse to take interest-bearing debt just because it makes sense? Are humans still so amazingly primitive that we cannot resist economic domination without submitting to the domination of an imaginary sky father? But then, maybe this flavor of Judaism is more subtle and less authoritarian than we imagine.

Yesterday while I was changing the oil in my truck, I overheard two neighbors talking about God. And it occurred to me that if they had been Taoists, they could have had the same conversation about the Tao. The general idea is that you and I are not gods; we have to adapt to a world that is guided by something alive and much greater than us. Yet, in practice, Christianity is radically different from Taoism. Why?

One difference is that Judeo-Christians put the Divine in human form. This is a terrible blunder: it enables us to think of ourselves as gods, justified in stomping across the planet changing anything; it leads us to confuse the Divine with human authority systems, so they have more control over us; and it causes great confusion and suffering when events do not unfold according to human morality.

A deeper difference is that in typical Christianity, information about the Divine comes through intermediaries. In Gnostic Christianity, Taoism, and certain other traditions, you are encouraged to make a direct connection. This is what people mean when they say they’re “spiritual but not religious”: they think there is a deeper reality than the mindless clockwork universe of western materialism, but they don’t trust human authorities to tell them about it.

Related: a few years ago in this post, I quoted a brilliant email from Paula about the American right and the authoritarian personality. She wrote: “The key thing to understand… is that all their lives they are taught that morality and values are things that come from outside themselves.”

July 23-25. Yesterday there was a good Kos post about how Republicans have driven a wedge between ordinary Americans and progressive politicians by undermining every attempt to use government to do good, until people think their problems can’t be solved through government.

OK… but how do they gain from this, really? If they just want political power, then why don’t they compete with liberals in using government to help people and win votes? If they want to destroy the government, why? Just to pay fewer taxes? I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. Very rich people and corporations are already able to dodge taxes, and middle class Republicans seem oblivious to their tax money going to expensive wasteful stuff like the “war on drugs” and toxic food subsidies and unwinnable ground wars in Asia.

If this is the work of elites trying to profit from the Iraq war, why not get much safer profits by starting alternative energy companies and using their inside connections to get fat government subsidies? And if they just want to replace the government with the private sector, then why do they also oppose private actions that help people, like Food Not Bombs or industrial hemp farming? Why do they hate bicycles and energy conservation and Rainbow Gatherings?

Let’s stop pretending. These people block the government from doing good not because they hate government, but because they hate the doing of good. Why they hate it, and how it got started, are much harder questions.

Part of it is envy. One of my favorite bits in the Bible is the parable of the jealous workers: Some workers show up at a farm in the morning, and agree to work all day for a certain wage. Then some other workers show up in the afternoon, and they get the same amount of money for only working half a day. And the morning workers whine, “No faaaair!” And Jesus says, “Morning workers, you’re fucked up. You consented to that deal and it’s wrong for you to resent someone for getting a better deal.”

To this day, religious scholars have trouble taking the parable at face value, but if you think it through it makes perfect sense. If the morning workers get their way, then conquerors can massacre indigenous people because “it’s not fair that I had to work hard all my life in this nightmare society while these other people get to play in the woods all day.” If they’re right, then it’s not fair for anyone to raise their kids with more autonomy and less abuse than they were raised with, and we have a downward ratchet, where the world can get worse and worse but it can never get better because no one is allowed to go first.

Now I need to back up and talk about language. The Kos post uses the word “Republicans”, but when they started out in 1860 they were the good party. I could use the word “right-winger” but then someone would say, “What about Ron Paul? He’s a good right winger.” Or, “What about Soviet Russia, where the bad people were left wing?” As soon as we use names, we get into pissant semantic arguments and lose the heart of the issue. So in the following comments, I’m going to use a blank instead of a name for this dark spiritual force.

Sally asks:

Do you mean that ( ) envy the poor for being poor and are afraid poverty is actually the better deal?

People who are prone to envy tend to envy anyone who has lower social status and is happier. You even see this between the poor and the very poor. Of course, they also envy richer happier people, but they believe they can get there themselves through self-punishing work. What infuriates them is to see unhappy richer people or happy poorer people, because it means they’ve wasted their own lives chasing success. So they have a strong motive to make political decisions that will keep people below them miserable.

And Paula comments:

I was raised in a fundamentalist church and grew up holding rather extreme ( ) beliefs. So, I have some insight into where these people are coming from.

The key thing to understand about ( ) thinking is that all their lives they are taught that morality and values are things that come from outside themselves. Anything you want to try to understand about ( ) comes back to this. A person’s feelings and experiences have nothing whatever to do with what is right and wrong. Thus it’s really quite impossible for someone stuck in a ( ) mentality to discern evil and good on her own; this determination has to come from some authority, and no matter how painful or miserable, she’ll stay the authority’s course because she believes she does not have the capacity to make moral decisions for herself.

This is why ( ) pundits can become continually more obnoxious, disgusting, and stupid without losing audience; and why parroting the day’s party line memo is so much more rampant among ( ) bloggers and political junkies — people who have never, and because of their cognitive programming likely will never have an original political thought. It is also why appeals to ( ) sense of decency or humanity are futile: the authorities have already been determined, and you and I are not among them, no matter if we speak the genuine truth or lay out a perfectly sensible argument.

( ) oppose government doing good because government actions are determined by the will of the people, and the people have no capacity to make moral decisions on their own. Democratic and representative governments are intrinsically evil because they are subordinate to the people… This is why ( ) seek to use democratic processes to end democracy.

I also believe we are born with an internal moral compass. But in my experience, that compass is like any muscle… If you don’t exercise it, it will atrophy and you’ll end up dependent upon someone else. Perhaps the best metaphor I can think of is the old Chinese practice of boxing in little girls’ feet so that when they grow up, they can’t walk. The difference being that it IS possible to reconstitute one’s internal moral compass. For me it happened through very, very painful experiences which forced me to make life and death decisions on my own, without the help of any authority.

So what goes in the blank? “Authoritarian” would be a decent word, and Brian recommends a book on the subject, The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. But this is like a disease that we’re only beginning to understand, and I don’t think it will turn out to be one simple thing, but a complex combination of things. Some of these people are capable of independent thought, and some are not. Some want power and some just want to fit in. Some are motivated by envy, some by sadism, some believe they’re doing good, some know they’re being selfish, some haven’t even thought that deeply about it, and the really exceptional ones know they’re evil. And everyone who looks at the problem, including me, projects their own personality onto it.

And you can’t blame corporations or government or money or civilization, because there are some primitive tribes who have none of those things and are still totally repressive and miserable. You can even find tribes going bad among nonhuman primates. This sickness is deep.
Daniel corrects yesterday’s post:

Judaism does not countenance putting the divine in human form. (As an aside, this is one reason why most Jews did not agree to the implied proposition Jesus was offering.) Saying the divine has human form would count as idolatry, which is at the root of all thinking that puts humans in positions of power over other humans, because in the end it’s self-worship. In traditional Judaism, especially emphasized in the Kabbalah, the divine is fundamentally unknowable, but we can get glimpses of what appear to be the divine attributes…

Again, this sounds a lot like Taoism. Yesterday’s post will not be archived, so I’ll just keep it as it is. And it also occurs to me that there are other systems of thought where the people who really study it know the smart version, while everyone else, for or against, knows only a dumb version. For example, serious primitivists know that primitive life can be far from perfect, but they still think it’s preferable to modernity. And serious scientists know that science limits itself to experience that can be duplicated under controlled conditions, and has nothing to say about experience outside this range. You often see battling ideologies with an unspoken agreement to attack each other’s dumb versions and ignore each other’s smart versions. I call this “strawman vs strawman”.