July 23rd, 2024


Poverty, Housing and The Blame Game

Eli Verschleiser

By Eli Verschleiser

Published June 17, 2015

Poverty, Housing and The Blame Game

It's hard to imagine a public debate about why so many homeless people are still homeless and whether they chose their own predicament. Or going into a low-income neighborhood in New York City or the deep south and asking the residents if they are trying hard enough to improve their circumstance and join the middle class.

But when it comes to one group, Chasidic Jews, it's not unusual to speculate that they have in large part made their own beds, chosen yeshiva study over work, had too many kids or taken low-paying jobs just to qualify for benefits for the poor.

A recent New York Daily News article, in conjunction with radio station WNYC took a hard look at the success of Jews in Williamsburg in qualifying for Section 8 taxpayer-funded housing benefits. The article only implies wrongdoing, but browse through some of the resulting comments on social media and you'll see a strong current of hate.

"They're gaming the system and committing fraud," says one poster on the web site Gothamist. "Villainous scum," says another.

It's not necessarily anti-Semitism. Plenty of Jews are quick to condemn their Chasidic brothers as purposeful freeloaders who embarrass them. What they have in common is the freedom to make assumptions and embrace a double standard: it's OK for some people to be poor, but not others.

"As a matter of public policy welfare benefits should be limited to those poor through no fault of their own," says another online commenter.

So, how would this work? The government would set up a panel to essentially issue poor permits, to determine through some unimaginable litmus test who is choosing to be poor and who simply has lousy luck? Would this be determined solely by the number of children, or by other education and geography choices. And should we start limiting children, like China?

Let me be clear: Anyone who falsely qualifies for a government program by deception such as concealing income should be prosecuted, and I am certainly not disputing there are likely those in every community guilty of this crime. I am also not advocating that anyone has a moral right to receive benefits when self-sufficiency is available.

But I also don't want to understate the scourge of poverty in communities not far removed from the immigration generation, including some recent immigrants, who like many others face cultural assimilation issues, especially in light of years of persecution abroad.

Yeshivas do indeed need to do more to prepare children not just for religious life but with secular education that paves the way for job skills. There is evidence that some are not doing this, and they should be compelled to do so.

However, as millions of Americans can attest, having job skills and a desire to work doesn't necessarily create the opportunity for a high-paying job. Densely populated communities can't always sustain themselves independently, especially when population growth exceeds economic growth.

Add to that the fact that cultural change takes time. Like their counterparts elsewhere, more Chasidic women surely work today compared to 20 years ago. A recent survey by the group B'Hadrei Haredim found that 53 percent work full-time. But there are still barriers and logistics to come that do not happen overnight.

Some would coldly suggest that a faith community, still recovering from the devastation of the Holocaust have fewer or no children until they rise up the economic ladder. But no other community is asked to do this.

It's the American way to give the needy a leg up until they can get better established and contribute enough to society to, in turn, help others. It's simply hatred toward your neighbor to assume everyone in a particular community is poor by choice and milking the government with no effort to improve themselves.

If the broader Jewish community in the New York area excels at anything, it's establishing strong community organizations that may assist in the process for applicants who might otherwise have no place to turn. This is nothing to be ashamed of. If they are more successful than their counterparts, they should, and often do, offer their expertise to help their neighbors obtain the same benefits.

As WNYC reports, the ability to organize and gain political support has enabled the Satmar Chasidim to stay in one of the hottest real estate markets near city through a combination of political influence and community members providing both supply and demand. Political power and high voter turnout is nothing to be ashamed of -- it should be encouraged -- and community members who own property renting to those who receive section 8 vouchers, rather than making excuses and turning them away is also commendable.

What's the alternative? Allowing rents to rise, hipsters and the wealthy to take over the neighborhood and make the area increasingly less accessible to lower income renters?

To begin to ease our national debt, the US will face pressure to clamp down on spending programs across the board, and that means more closely scrutinizing applications and the efficacy of programs across the board. It is my strong hope we don't do that by stigmatizing members of faith groups and using guilt by association to question worthiness.

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Eli Verschleiser is a Philanthropist, financier, and investor in commercial real estate. In his Philanthropy, Mr. Verschleiser is a board member of the American Jewish Congress, Co-Founder of Magenu.org, & President of OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. Mr. Verschleiser is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters. Follow: @E_Verschleiser