A new exodus for the Haredim? How harsh benefit cuts could wreck a unique community

Photo: Mike Abrahams

For Hackney’s Haredi Jewish population, proposed government benefit cuts for large families could mean trouble. Over 90 per cent of Hackney families affected by the last round of housing benefit cuts were Haredi and in the face of further benefit cuts for larger families, some have predicted a forced migration for the Orthodox community from their inner London community of Stamford Hill.

Diane Abbott, the local MP, described the proposals to EastLondonLines as ‘unfair, unnecessary and ill-thought out,’ while an unnamed Conservative minister, quoted in the Evening Standard yesterday, likened the effect of the proposed cuts to the ‘Highland Clearances’ of the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps a more apt term for this community would be an exodus.

The Haredim have fallen foul of the new Government policy, as described by Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt when justifying plans to cap annual benefits at the level of an average working family income. He said: “The number of children that you have is a choice and what we’re saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices”. The Haredim believe that the choice lies not with them but with a rather higher power.

They are strictly Orthodox Jews who live according to a stringent interpretation of religious law. With gender-segregated private religious schools, a ban on television, and the preservation of Yiddish as a living language, the Haredi community have, over the years, remained determinedly aloof from the secular world. But the novelty of their old-fashioned black clothing belies the fact that this is a living, breathing community, facing a thoroughly modern set of problems.

Haredi families are large. Inspired by an enthusiastic celebration of the value of reproduction, the community’s couples have an average of 5.9 children – far exceeding birth rates among the wider population.

And while numerous offspring may bring their parents joy, the rapid expansion in Haredi numbers has also ushered in a serious problem of residential overcrowding. In addition to this, the demands of strict Haredi observance can also be difficult to balance with full-time employment, meaning that many find themselves working only part-time for low wages.

For financially-burdened Haredi families, these problems are  made particularly acute by a specific set of religious requirements: homes must be in walking distance of a synagogue and other community facilities, and kitchens must be suitable for kosher food preparation.

Now, the already-strained housing situation seems set to worsen, as public spending cuts proposed in response to the recession will see reductions in benefits that have provided support.

In April 2009, a cap was introduced on Local Housing Allowance payments, limiting them to the ‘5 bedroom rate’ of £550 a week.

While this previous change affected a relatively small number of households, of those in Hackney whose benefit payments were hit, according to the borough’s council, 94 per cent were Haredi.

Now, a new lower cap on housing benefit is set to come into force next spring, under which the payments received by larger families will be cut further.

From April 2011, Local Housing Allowance for all properties with four or more bedrooms will be capped at the ‘4 bedroom rate’ of £400 a week.

This means that current recipients living in costly inner-London boroughs may find themselves unable to cover their rent – and, while Hackney’s Haredi residents are not the only ones to be affected by the race to save public money, the research shows that they have fallen disproportionately foul of previous housing benefit cuts.

The Stamford Hill area is home to an estimated Haredi population of around 20,000 – the largest such community in Europe, exceeded in size only by those in Israel and the United States. The streets throng with men in long, old-fashioned coats and towering hats. Black-clad women with curiously uniform hairstyles walk the pavements with pushchairs, while little girls in long sleeves, and boys with payot and velvet skullcaps tag alongside them.

When approached for their views on the proposed changes, local residents are polite but typically taciturn. However, politicians representing the area have expressed concern about the potential impact on Orthodox Stamford Hill.

Ms Abbot, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, told EastLondonLines: “The cap on housing benefit will have a huge effect on many residents in Hackney, but it will hit the large number of Orthodox Jewish families living in my constituency particularly hard.”

“Families in the Orthodox Jewish community typically have more than four children, and many of them live in the private rented sector, so the limit on benefit will have a devastating impact,” she said.

“They will see a serious shortfall between the benefits they receive and the rent they have to pay, which may see many Haredi families forced out of their community and into cheaper accommodation further out of London.”

Conservative Councillor Michael Levy told EastLondonLines that it was impossible to know ‘how [the changes] will play out.’

“The landscape is going to change,” he said. But, defending the economic rationale behind the cuts, he added: “We can’t spend what we don’t have.”

Haredi Councillor Bernard Aussenberg (also Conservative) represents Lordship ward, one of the most affected areas. Favouring a more optimistic view, he told EastLondonLines: “Perhaps [the changes] will bring the soaring rents in Stamford Hill down.”

Indeed, this might be one possible outcome. Some of the property that is currently being rented is owned by members of the first wave of Haredi immigration, who may be able to adjust rents – but owners of newer properties will probably not be able to make similar adjustments.

Ms Abbott added: “This Lib Con cap to housing benefit shows a distinct lack of care or concern for people living in inner London, who will be forced to find cheaper, more cramped and unsuitable accommodation, or move away from the areas in which they have lived all their lives.”

The issue of whether the bulk of the Haredi population will continue to call Hackney home in future years was previously raised in 2006, when community organisation the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations expressed interest in buying land to develop homes in Milton Keynes.

But despite the attractions of fresh(er) air and space for families to grow, any community migration would require a critical mass of discontented and dislodged residents.

And, Ms Abbott said, the potential departure of the Haredi community from Hackney would be a tragedy for the area. “They will be forced to move away from the synagogues and schools that the community has built here in Hackney,” she predicted. “This will be a sad loss to the borough.”


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