Did you know that the poorest town in America is a mere 50 miles from New York? According to Census data, Kiryas Joel, the Orange County town that is the home base for the Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews, has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than any other city, town or village with 10,000 people in the country. About 70 percent of its 21,000 residents live below federal poverty levels with nearly half of the village's households reporting annual incomes less than $15,000. But the story isn't that simple.
After all, we're talking about a close-knit, deeply religious town with many big families and few working women—the median age is under 12, with an average household size of nearly six (last year one Kiryas Joel woman died and left behind nearly 2,000 great-grandchildren!). And while many of the villagers are technically poor, they also have access to a strong internal support network that includes interest-free loans, not to mention that the Satmars have learned how to use their political power as a voting bloc to their advantage. “I cannot say as a group that they are cheating the system,” William B. Helmreich, a sociology professor who specializes in Judaic studies at City College of the City University of New York, told the Times, “but I do think that they have, no pun intended, unorthodox methods of getting financial support.”
Those in the community are, unsurprisingly, not very interested in talking about their finances. But a village administrator does mention that, especially regarding the town's usage of state and federal funds, people tend to forget the things that the town doesn't use. Besides the fact that a majority of the children attend religious schools, at least for awhile (only 39 percent of the population has graduated high school), “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. I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”
Either way we're sure that, unlike their cousins in Williamsburg, the Satmars in Kiryas Joel don't have to worry about parking tickets on Passover.