By Niki Blasina
Brooklyn, N.Y. – Throughout the U.S., lower-income voters tend to favor President Barack Obama’s re-election. But in Brooklyn, one of the borough’s poorer neighborhoods is also one of those most likely to vote Tuesday for Republican Mitt Romney.
That neighborhood is Borough Park, where almost 30 percent of the population is living at or below the poverty line, but where 79 percent of voters favored John McCain in 2008.
The area is home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the world, and is one where worries about Israel, national security and religious freedom trump the traditional concerns of low-income voters.
Moreover, voter engagement has historically been low in Borough Park; in 2008, approximately 30 percent voted, as compared to 50 percent borough-wide.
Need for Social Services
About half of the people living in Borough Park are eligible for food stamps, and are receiving extra help through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Home Relief cash assistance programs. Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, assists approximately 600 families per month in applying for these programs. His office is “a one-stop social service agency,” he said.
Silber attributes much of the community’s need to family size, which in Borough Park is very large: households with seven or more persons make up 15% of the neighborhood, compared to 2.9% of the city. The average household size is 4.35, compared to 2.57 in the city as a whole, and the median household income in Borough Park is $35,508 per year.
“A family of four making $60,000 per year is considered middle class, but in this community where you have large families, it doesn’t work that way,” said Silber. “People with 8, 10, or 12 are not unusual in this community, so people can make a decent salary but it’s not enough.”
Silber primarily assists families obtain food stamps. “There’s a misconception that food stamps are only for people on welfare, or not working, and that’s totally false,” he said. “The majority of people on food stamps are working people, they have jobs and bring home a paycheck, and unfortunately they might not stretch out far enough to satisfy all their nutritional needs.”
Moshe Friedman, 34, a consultant, says that government support is not something that is talked about openly. “But you see it,” he said. “You go to the grocery store, and you see people pulling out a food-stamp card to pay.”
Friedman says the need for assistance goes beyond additional mouths to feed. Religious education for children is expensive, as yearly tuition averages about $9,000 per child. Weddings are also a major expense. “It costs thousands of dollars to marry off kids and the parents usually pay for it,” he said.
Nationwide, only a third of voters who make less than $24,000 plan to support Romney, while Obama gets more than half their votes, according to a Gallup poll released in September. The trends are similar for those making between $24,000 and $36,000. Yet, if history is a guide, Borough Park voters are more likely to vote for Romney, who has promised a close examination of welfare programs, in light of the ballooning federal deficit.
Financial need is also not the main priority in the Orthodox community when making voting decisions.
“I try to encourage people to not have one litmus test,” said Silber. “Look at all of the issues and decide what’s most important. Social, moral, religious issues – things along those lines,” are important factors.
Friedman agrees. “Because we lead a religious life, there are some things that are much more important than any kind of money,” he said. “There are a lot of things that people will do knowing that it will hurt them financially.”
“If someone in our neighborhood is going to vote for same-sex marriage, the guy could bring in millions of dollars for our community but he’ll still be voted out,” said Friedman.
This happened to Democrat Councilman Lew Fidler earlier this year. The group “Jews for Morality” published a letter in which 49 rabbis argued against voting for Fidler, a proponent of gay marriage. Fidler lost many rabbinical endorsements, and the special election last March for a state Senate seat to Republican David Storobin.
Israel and National Security
The state of Israel is an important political issue as well. “In this community it’s which candidate is perceived as more supportive of Israel,” said Silber. “Especially being in New York where people have been the victims of terror.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a rocky relationship with President Obama, which has been amplified heading into the election due to tension over Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu and Romney have been friends for over 35 years, and throughout his campaign, Romney has accused Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus.”
Romney and Obama have both said that they would not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
Voter turnout in past elections in Borough Park has been very low. Friedman noted that there is mistrust of government; a prime example is the U.S. Census.
Friedman encouraged people to fill out Census forms, because “the government allocates money based on how many people live” in an area. But he has friends who wouldn’t do it.
One reason may be historical. In pre-war Germany, Nazis used census records to identify Jews. When Holocaust survivors moved to the U.S., “the government came to the doors asking them for where they live, how they live, and what their name is, and they said, ‘I was asked that same question 10 years ago and they took people to the gas chambers,’” said Friedman. “And when the next generation grew up they said, ‘Hold on, my mother never gave any information,’” and so the suspicion continues.
Shmuel Poller, 53, was a recruiting assistant for the Census in 2010. “Lots of people had a paranoia,” he said. “We had push to get people to know that this is different, and not to worry about it.”
Not all support comes from the government. For anyone struggling to get by, there is also community support available, such as the kosher soup kitchen, Masbia, directed by Alexander Rappaport, 34. Masbia is almost entirely privately funded. “We’re the emergency room or last resort for anything that goes wrong,” Rappaport said.
Members of the community also help each other, whether it’s through babysitting, cooking meals, or providing places to stay or hand-me-down clothing.
“If there’s a wedding, people will say, ‘My daughter’s dress is available so you don’t have to go buy a dress,’” said Rappaport. “If you marry off your daughter and invite some guests, you don’t put them in a hotel. Anyone on the block will have them stay over.”
This community support is also driven by religious life, since everyone is considered equal. “The fish monger and the stock broker go to the same ritual bath,” said Rappaport.