Is Kiryas Joel an Unhappy Place?



I was browsing my RSS feed, as one does, and came across a New York Times article, "A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place", about the Satmar Hasidic Jews of Kiryas Joel (NY).

Their interest lies in their extraordinarily high birthrate & population growth, and their poverty - which are connected. From the article:

"...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.

...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.

...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.

... 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.

...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.

...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....“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 [Mr. Szegedin, the village administrator] said. “I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”

From Wikipedia:

The land for Kiryas Joel was purchased in 1977, and fourteen Satmar families settled there. By 2006, there were over 3,000...In 1990, there were 7,400 people in Kiryas Joel; in 2000, 13,100, nearly doubling the population. In 2005, the population had risen to 18,300, a rate of growth suggesting it will double again in the ten years between 2000 and 2010.

Robin Hanson has argued that uploaded/emulated minds will establish a new Malthusian/Darwinian equilibrium in "IF UPLOADS COME FIRST: The crack of a future dawn" - an equilibrium in comparison to which our own economy will look like a delusive dreamtime of impossibly unfit and libertine behavior. The demographic transition will not last forever. But despite our own distaste for countless lives living at near-subsistence rather than our own extreme per-capita wealth (see the Repugnant Conclusion), those many lives will be happy ones (even amidst disaster).

So. Are the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel unhappy?