Americans have long debated whether the poor are worthy of our help. Most people don’t put it that way, of course, because it seems cruel or, at very the least, inappropriate. But the question flows through the public discourse whenever proposals for reforming public welfare come before Congress, or an extension of housing benefits is on the legislative agenda. Do the recipients of such aid deserve it? Is it worth the cost to taxpayers? Does the safety net help those who truly are in need, or does it shackle them to the kind of government assistance that stifles motivation and derails self-sufficiency?
We’re used to hearing that argument play out with regard to racial and ethnic minorities — the so-called Welfare Queens, the undeserving poor. Now it’s time for the Jewish community to engage in this delicate, complicated debate.
The survey just released by UJA-Federation of New York made headlines for what it found: New York’s Jews are more numerous, less educated, more religious and poorer than they were a decade ago. The findings confirm what many suspected and, in some cases, feared: that the middle is shrinking. The religious middle — that is, Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative — is losing shares to the Orthodox and the unaffiliated, and that poses a direct challenge to the open, egalitarian, inclusive Judaism that has been ascendant in this country for the past half-century.
There will be plenty to say about that in the coming days and months. But it is the growth in poverty that draws our attention now.
The survey included the eight counties served by the New York Federation — the city’s five boroughs, plus those of Westchester and Long Island — and found that one-fifth of Jews live in poor households. The proportion increases when the suburban counties are omitted: 27% of Jews in New York City live in poor households, only slightly less than the 30% of poor people of any religion.
Liberal Judaism as represented by “The Forward” is all about “Tikkun Olam” — fixing the world. Helping the needy has always been a cornerstone of Judaism whether you call it “Tikkun Olam” or just plain Biblical commandment.
Now we are hearing the same kind of seething and shrieking from liberals that we are accustomed to hearing from right-wing nutjobs when it comes to helping the needy. It’s suddenly all about forcing the “other” to change their alternative lifestyles in order to qualify for assistance.
Trust me, nobody deliberately chooses to live in poverty. I have been unemployed and it sucks. Nobody would prefer to give up a $60,000/year job in order to qualify for $6,000 in food stamps. It appears the myth of “young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps” is alive and well, it has just morphed into “large Hasidic families buying expensive kosher food with food stamps” but that doesn’t make it any less bigoted.
Refusing assistance to needy Hasidic families is every bit as repugnant as refusing assistance to young single mothers or refusing health care to gays.