Politics

Voucher Distribution Reflects Orthodox Political Clout

In an electoral climate in New York City where dwindling turnout numbers make securing blocs of votes a priority, no enclave has been better organized or more savvy at leveraging its capital at the ballot box than Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community.

The latest example of the continued (and perhaps increasing) clout of the Orthodox community comes via a report issued by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs on the future of the city’s early care programs. The report details how the child-care vouchers that the city distributes through the Administration of Children’s Services—vouchers that can be used at any setting a parent chooses, and that are intended for low-income families, according to various priority criteria—have disproportionately gone to Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, namely Williamsburg and Borough Park.

The report states that as of the beginning of 2014—prior to the finalizing of the budget for fiscal year 2015—nearly 50 percent of the vouchers for these families were used at child-care and after-school programs in Williamsburg and Borough Park. Additionally, yeshivas and other Jewish religious organizations were the biggest recipients of voucher funds. Of all the vouchers used at day-care centers and schools, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious organizations, according to the analysis conducted by the New School.

Under federal law, families that receive public assistance benefits are guaranteed access to mandated child-care vouchers. The city then distributes its own child-care vouchers, which pay anywhere from $100 to $330 per week, according to a priority scale. The highest priority families include those with a child receiving protective or preventive welfare services. Any remaining child-care funds are handed out to parents who earn up to 275 percent of the federal poverty line on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Budget cuts eliminated nearly 10,000 low-income vouchers since 2008, including the Priority 7 vouchers that were put on the chopping block in 2009 at the behest of former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Those vouchers were for families with “family dysfunction, family needs or family problems,” including those with one working parent and a large number of children—and a plurality of them went to Orthodox families.

In fact, one of the biggest proponents of the “P7” voucher was then Councilman Bill de Blasio, whose district included parts of Borough Park. It was hardly a surprise when, as a mayoral candidate, de Blasio made restoring the child-care vouchers a campaign priority last year, in a naked attempt to court the Orthodox Jewish vote.

At a breakfast with Jewish community leaders hosted by the social services organization Agudath Israel of America in 2013, de Blasio told the audience, “I am disgusted that, in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg came to this community, begged and pleaded for support, knowing that the support of this community would be one of the only ways he could win. Took the support, turned around and took away every single voucher for this community. The ‘chutzpah’ of that is unbelievable, inappropriate and unfair.” He added, “It is not a giveaway; it’s an act of fairness.”

Sure enough, de Blasio kept his promise. With the help of City Councilmen Stephen Levin and David Greenfield, who served as the mouthpieces for Williamsburg and Borough Park, respectively, the Council agreed to include $10 million in funding in the city’s executive budget to partially restore Priority 5 vouchers—which serve low-income families who work 20 hours or more per week—for the coming fiscal year.

In comments made to the Jewish newspaper Hamodia, Avi Fink, the mayor’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, indicated that putting money back into the vouchers was the first step to undoing the cuts that Bloomberg had made to the priority 7 vouchers—cuts that were made out of fiscal necessity, according to the prior administration.

“We can’t fund Priority 7 without funding priorities 1 through 6, which [cost] hundreds of millions of dollars,” Fink said. “So instead of saying, ‘Hey, we can’t afford the hundreds of millions of dollars, so we can’t afford anything,’ what the mayor said was, ‘Let me at least start restoring these programs, like I said I would.’ ”

It is notable that Greenfield was one of the Council members heavily lobbying for the vouchers, as he has positioned himself as a power broker with the new administration, thanks largely to the key role he played in pushing fellow members of the Brooklyn Council delegation to vote for Melissa Mark-Viverito to be Council Speaker.

Sources familiar with Orthodox Jewish politics in Brooklyn say that Greenfield’s close political alignment with Rabbi David Niederman, the powerful head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), provides a window into how the Orthodox community has kept a firm grasp on the nonmandatory vouchers.

These sources say that social services organizations like UJO play crucial roles in reaching out to Orthodox families and helping them fill out applications for the vouchers each year, which are swiftly processed through ACS. In many cases the vouchers are then used at schools closely aligned with Niederman, such as the United Talmudical Academy, an institute controlled by the same Satmar sect Niederman leads, the Zaloynim.

Because the Satmar vote in significant number and as a bloc, it makes sense that elected officials would seek to curry favor with the group. The Center for New York City Affairs report stated that the United Talmudical Academy, along with its counterpart from the Aroynim Satmar sect, the Central United Talmudical Academy, received 20 percent of the city’s total supply of low-income vouchers as of the beginning of 2014.

When asked about the Orthodox community’s savvy in applying for the vouchers, Levin said that Orthodox families “probably apply at a higher rate,” but added, “It’s not as if [the vouchers] are tailored to one community or another.”

But the appearance of bias in voucher distribution has irked some child-care providers in other low-income neighborhoods across the city. One board member of a child-care provider in Bedford-Stuyvesant, who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his organization’s government funding stream, said that ACS gave every indication that they intended to redirect vouchers to communities that were both “high-need” and “high-utilization”—essentially, low-income neighborhoods with a larger population of schools and child-care centers where the vouchers are used.

“Communities like Bed-Stuy were characterized as high-need but not high-utilization. Borough Park was high-need and high utilization,” the board member said. “Externally it felt to us … that there was some power exercising influence over the decisions at ACS as to who to award these grants.”

This is not the first time that the city has been accused of playing favorites with the Orthodox community regarding voucher distribution. In 2000 Brooklyn Rabbi Milton Balkany, a fundraiser and political supporter of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said he had the city’s permission to process hundreds of voucher applications from low-income Orthodox families and to charge fees for the work. The revelation led to a public outcry from Eric Adams, the current Brooklyn borough president and former police captain who was the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement at the time, who called for an investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office “free of any coercion” from City Hall. Balkany was never charged in this case, although he was later sentenced to four years in prison for extorting $4 million from a hedge fund.

Despite the de Blasio administration’s placating of the Orthodox community, few would argue that the population does not have a great need for the vouchers. Levin, the chair of the Council’s Committee on General Welfare, believes that the strict tradition of the religious culture provides less freedom for Orthodox families to satisfy their child-care needs through the school system, often leaving them to rely on family members for help. The vouchers are a way for those family members to earn compensation for their assistance.

“There’s a very high need for child-care in Orthodox communities. This [Priority 5] restoration wasn’t specifically aimed at Orthodox communities, but the fact does remain that there are high child-care needs, and those child-care needs aren’t necessarily met in the early learn framework,” Levin said. “Children, for the most part, go to schools at yeshivas and religious-based schools; there are not … a lot of early learn programs in those communities. There are some, but by and large families are using the voucher system more.”

While these programs may be needed in the Orthodox community, there is a question as to whether the city can afford to continue to fund them in years to come. The Center for New York City Affairs notes that between 1999 and 2013, the number of children using mandated vouchers rose by more than two-thirds to nearly 57,000—contributing to ACS’ complicated fiscal outlook. The report found that ACS has a recurring structural deficit of $90 million, forcing the agency to shift the voucher expenses internally and take dollars away from other programs and services.

The city disputes the $90 million figure, explaining that while the voucher budget has been oversubscribed, spending on contracted care is less than projected, meaning there is enough of a surplus in contracted care to offset the high cost of voucher care.

But apparently not everyone in the new administration agrees with that arithmetic. As noted in the report, at a Council hearing in March ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión indicated that the city’s budget gymnastics are not sustainable in the long run.

“We stole from Peter to pay Paul,” Carrión said. “We took money from other places in the agency that was unspent, and we, quite frankly, delayed hiring as much as we could to generate some accruals to be able to shift money around to meet those needs. You can’t sustain that on an ongoing basis.”

Meanwhile, the waiting list for vouchers continues to grow, to as high as 11,000, according to Carrión. But as long as the Orthodox votes keep pouring in on Election Day, it is a safe bet to assume the voucher programs will keep going strong.

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