Continetti is guest-blogging for The Post.
I can't be the only person who’s absolutely fascinated by this New York Times story on Kiryas Joel, N.Y., the poorest community in the United States. More than 70 percent of Kiryas Joel's residents fall beneath the poverty line — but the social pathologies we typically associate with deprivation are practically nonexistent.
The reason is that Kiryas Joel is populated almost entirely by Hasidic Jews. Here's Timesman Sam Roberts:
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.
The social workers quoted in the piece seem flummoxed by Kiryas Joel. They realize that the community’s lack of income and its surplus of unusual occupations (i.e., Talmudic scholar) make residents eligible for cash transfers and grants. But the social workers also seem to suggest that the Jews of Kiryas Joel don't deserve welfare benefits because they aren’t, well, miserable.
I e-mailed Hudson Institute scholar Tevi Troy to get his take. “Seems to me that the people of KJ have made a conscious decision to pursue religious fulfillment over wealth pursuit,” Troy wrote back. “In doing so, their community is following a more 19th-century model, with strong community support for poor members of the community, and low tolerance for drugs, crime, or out-of-wedlock childrearing. Our current social service system was not designed with this type of community in mind, which is why some people in the NYT grumbled about social service dollars going to people who appear poor but happy.”
Articles such as Roberts’s lend support to research by Arthur Brooks and Derek Bok. They’ve both shown that, past a certain point, happiness is completely unrelated to income. As you read stories like these, you begin to wonder whether poverty is more a spiritual than economic condition. And if that’s the case, the residents of Kiryas Joel are as rich as Croesus.