Friday, May 25, 2007

Our Working Poor

We live in a world of statistics, a world that we cannot escape. There is a need or at least an impulse to simplify social phenomena and there is no better path to simplification than to reduce these phenomena to sets of numbers. What emerges is at times reliable, as with data on gender or age. Or, the numbers can be accurate and yet they can also distort because they oversimplify complex realities, as with statistics on political affiliation or ideological preferences. Nuances are lost in the shuffle.

Some statistics are unreliable because they are subjective and vulnerable to false claims. Thus it is with data on poverty, where especially with group-based claims, the temptation to exaggerate may be irresistible. Irrespective of how the economy is doing or what the government is doing to assist the poor or social advancement, there is a remarkable consistency to claims of widespread poverty.

There are poor people, plenty of them, and their needs need to be addressed, which doesn’t justify the numbers games being played by povertycrats or the naïve reliance on self-reported income or on the equally naïve blindness to the reality of a massive underground economy that involves many who purport to be poor. Since the advent of the Great Society forty years ago, there are powerful incentives for group-based claims of poverty. More than a generation ago, I noted the change in ethnic rhetoric from claims of “making it” in America to claims of failure. The latter are rewarded.

Not surprisingly, we Jews are not immune from the exaggeration bug. It is in tune with the touch of paranoia that has become part of our make-up. There are claims suggesting that we are about the poorest of America’s ethnic groups and the proof of this is that we have large numbers of elderly, Russians and charedim and as a consequence of their status, they must be poor. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, we have failed on these shores.

I have just read a report prepared by Masters students at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. Entitled, “Career Services for Near Poor Haredi and Immigrants Jews in New York City,” this well-intentioned document highlights the vital issue of defects in the federal poverty standard. It also touches on the situation of the working Jewish poor, notably charedim. I believe that more of these working poor are in the yeshiva-world sector than in the chassidic sector. Unfortunately, the writing is extremely poor and the statistics are chock full of errors and misinterpretation.

A case in point is Borough Park, where I have lived for nearly all of my life. We read that “it is home to one of the largest Haredi communities outside of Israel,” which is accurate and, then, “it is estimated that Jewish population may be as high as 250,000.” This fantasy figure is about three times the true number and, indeed, we are told on the next page that there are in Borough Park “26,698 households with 75,264 people,” a rather sharp population drop in the space of a few lines. Then we are told that 38% of the population is foreign born, of which 47% came to the U.S. between 1990 and 2000. Both statistics are wrong. Worse, yet, is the astounding claim that “the median household income is $35,904” and that 72% of the households earn below $60,000 annually. Finally, 25% of the households are below the federal poverty line.

This is statistical nonsense. Even those who believe the world is flat have a better grip on reality. Similar defective statistics are offered for other neighborhoods with a significant Jewish population.

Exaggeration of poverty is not a victimless wrong. Because funding to assist the poor is limited, false claims reduce the prospect that those who are truly poor will be helped in a meaningful way and they nearly eliminate the prospect that the near poor and working poor will be assisted. The exaggeration of Jewish poverty deflects attention away from the growing number of Jewish working poor, a phenomenon that is causing severe emotional and financial distress in too many homes. There are many Orthodox families that cannot get by even when both parents are working.

Contrary to the view of several sociologists with ideological axes to grind, job-market involvement of charedim is certainly at least as high as it is for American adults generally. Unfortunately, too many of these jobs are low-paying, primarily those in religious education or other communal work. For families earning what might otherwise be regarded as decent salaries, the extraordinarily large family size and the high cost of Orthodox living, notably yeshiva tuition, take a heavy toll.

I am told by Willie Rapfogel, the executive head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, that at the forty food pantries sponsored by his organization, there has been a significant increase in the number of working Orthodox families that come for assistance.

The conventional wisdom is that what is most needed is job training and counseling and the NYU report details much of what is available in the neighborhoods that it focuses on. The problem with this approach is that it obviously will not be the path taken by those in Jewish education. Also, the conventional jobs available after job training ordinarily do not yield sufficient income to pay the bills and yeshiva tuition. It would help if our community would tackle the pervasive job discrimination against Sabbath observers in certain better paying fields.

At the end of the day, the working religious Jewish poor will remain in a bind. Additional means of assistance to these families must be developed. One approach, perhaps best suited to the philanthropic sector, is tuition assistance to those who teach in our schools or serve our community or work hard in the private sector and cannot make ends meet. These are good people and they deserve more from us.