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?