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.
A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place
By SAM ROBERTS • New York Times
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.”
[Hat Tip: The Lion.]