Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Jewish Poor II

To understand why greater attention is paid to those whose poverty claims are exaggerated while many in need often are scarcely helped, it’s necessary to understand how the U.S. has structured public efforts to assist the poor.

The United States was late in providing meaningful social services for the needy, although there were millions of poor persons due to the astounding number of immigrants in the post-Civil War period and the contemporary movement of Americans from rural areas into the cities. It was as if the country had blinders on.

The Great Depression changed this. Whatever we may think of President Roosevelt’s record in other areas, the New Deal helped millions of Americans through a conservative network of programs that operated within this nation’s constitutional, political and social frameworks. The New Deal wasn’t perfect, nor could it be. There were the inevitable welfare cheats and there were the many more who were insufficiently helped. Its focus was on the individual, on the needy person who was the direct consumer of governmental benefits. This approach was maintained in Harry Truman’s Fair Deal.

U.S. public policy took a sharp turn in the 1960’s as evidence of intractable poverty, particularly among urban Blacks, raised doubts about the efficacy of the traditional welfare approach. A new war on poverty was launched and President Johnson proclaimed the Great Society. The focus was now on community action, the belief being that the serious economic and other deficits experienced by Blacks could not be counteracted unless this large segment of Americans had the organizational infrastructure that was a key feature in the activities of other ethnic groups. Unless the most underprivileged had organizations advocating for them, especially at the local level, they would remain underprivileged.

Little thought was given to whether the sad condition of Blacks arose from other circumstances, such things as the destruction of family life, as demonstrated by Patrick Moynihan in the 1970’s, or the drug culture or racial discrimination. Even less thought was given to whether the new arrangements might be harmful to Blacks because they were built on paternalism and would reinforce a sense of dependency.

The new welfare system funded and coddled groups in the hope that they would be catalysts for individual advancement. This arrangement did not replace the old system as much as it displaced it. Funding was targeted to agencies that were created to serve distinct ethnic groups. There was in this a strong incentive to maximize agency income by self-serving rhetoric which proclaimed that though the services that were being provided were effective and beneficial, previous estimates of poverty among their members were too low. In a sense, the multitude of agencies living off the public dole were able to claim at once that they were succeeding and that they were failing.

Other ethnic groups, including Jews, followed the path taken by Blacks and other minorities. The common theme was “We have not overcome. We have failed.” Over time, povertycrats came to believe their rhetoric and whether they believe the exaggerated claims that are fed them, politicians are conditioned to pander to organized groups.

As discussed last week, we are awash in exaggerated claims of poverty among Russian and elderly Jews. Such claims connect with sentiments that are understandably regarded as noble. But while we overly trumpet the needs of certain Jewish subgroups, in line with the national attitude we are neglecting the working poor for whom governmental funding is not available. There are a great number of people who go to work each day and yet who do not earn enough to provide adequately for their families. Nor do they fit into Federal poverty guidelines, which is also to say that there is a reduced incentive for our poverty agencies to advocate their cause.

The working poor are faces in the crowd. There’s little available for them under the anti-poverty arrangements. The situation of the Jewish working poor in New York is particularly dire because these are in the main Orthodox Jews with large families and costly tuition and other obligations arising from their religious commitment. They are helped to an extent by voluntary Orthodox groups which in fact constitute the primary network for assistance to all of the Jewish poor of New York. At the end of the day, they struggle to get by and many do not succeed. Their ranks are growing and we are headed toward a crisis.

The assumption among those who are hostile or ignorant is that these Orthodox Jews are poor because they do not work, preferring what has been nastily described as a parasitic existence. It’s also said that those who work are handicapped by the education that they received. Since there are thousands of Orthodox who work for communal institutions, including schools, and receive low salaries, while we benefit from their devotion and invaluable service, there is something repugnant about the snide comments made about these Jewish working poor.

Many others are in the general work force where they earn more than those who have communal positions and often cannot get by on their salaries. Put otherwise, $100,000 in gross pay is a good salary, yet the typical Orthodox breadwinner who earns this amount and has five or six children in school cannot get by on the net income that he is left with.

The economic downturn has made things worse and this has been particularly devastating for the significant number of Orthodox Jews in the computer field. They are handicapped because of geographic immobility. On top of this, there is continued discrimination against Orthodox Jews in the job market on account of their Sabbath observance and distinctive dress. While this discrimination is illegal, companies get away with their mistreatment of religious Jews because too few in organized Jewish life care about the problem.

When we include the large number of Jewish working poor, it is evident that there are many poor Jews, albeit not in the mix advocated by those agencies whose focus is on the availability of public funding. Now that our most well-heeled poverty agency is raising large sums from private sources, is it too much to expect that it will turn its attention to our working poor?