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Besides economizing and informal support networks, Orthodox communities rely on government aid programs to subsidize their child-heavy lifestyle.
In Rockland County, N.Y., the Hasidic village of New Square receives Section 8 housing subsidies at a higher rate than anywhere else in the region. In New Jersey, schools in the Orthodox city of Lakewood get more federally backed E-Rate telecom subsidies than schools in any other municipality. Half of the people living in the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, N.Y., are on food stamps; a third are on Medicaid.
Some of that government aid goes to cutting school prices. For secular parents, the price of private school can often be a factor in family planning. Religious school tuition could make having large numbers of children unfeasible, but ultra-Orthodox schools are inexpensive. Hasidic men contacted by the Forward reported that Hasidic families pay between $200 and $400 per month year-round for school and summer camp.
Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn cost $3,500 for the school year. Tuition to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan begins at $34,000.
Large families, however, don’t only create burdens on the parents. Older children are often tasked with raising their younger siblings. The result, according to Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, which helps people leaving Orthodoxy, is that a disproportionate number of their members are the eldest in their families.
A survey of 70 Footsteps members found that 30% were the oldest of their siblings. T
“The oldest children are burdened with a lot of the responsibility of taking care of younger children, and that could lead to resentment,” Santo said.
That could be a factor in the Orthodox dropout rates, which remain substantial. According to Pew, among Jews aged 18–29 who grew up Orthodox, 17% say they are no longer Orthodox.
In a political atmosphere leaning toward austerity, it’s feasible that cuts to welfare-type programs could affect ultra-Orthodox Jews’ ability to maintain their large families. But William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said he doesn’t believe that cuts would affect Orthodox family size.
“My sense is that the Orthodox birth rate is more about Halacha than it is about governmental subsidy,” Daroff said.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com