07/10/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

The Gilded Shtetl

The Pew Research Center has delivered another part of its comprehensive study of American politics. Not surprisingly, it validates the perception of increasing polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Equally without surprise, it identifies conservative positions with Republican Party members and liberal positions with Democrats. Nowhere is that more evident than in attitudes about the poor among us.

I am certain we will soon see critiques of each side by the other. From my point of view, the study only reinforces my conviction of a political home for American Jews in the Democratic Party.

What typifies the Republican base, according to the data collected by Pew? Here is one example: more than three-quarters of conservatives (including all of Pew's variations on that category) agree that "poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything."

Gather all the afflictions in the world, says the Midrash, and poverty would outweigh them all. Perhaps among the millions of people who rely on government assistance for basic food, essential medical care and shelter (because they have insufficient resources to afford them) there are those who identify as politically conservative, but I doubt they are many if part of the standard is to be thankful for their easy lives. Instead, it is likely that the three-quarters of conservatives have no real knowledge of the life of the poor.

That's not just a conjecture on my part. While only 28 percent of all respondents prefer to live among like-minded people, half of consistent conservatives want homogeneous neighborhoods. While 35 percent of all respondents say they have primarily like-minded friends, 63 percent of that conservative group lives in what Pew calls an ideological echo chamber. And three-quarters of these consistent conservatives prefer to live a distance from stores, schools and restaurants, meaning they are isolated from centers of poverty. In other words, the assessment of the poor they profess is likely based on a lack of familiarity with the circumstances of poverty.

To be fair, a segment of liberals believes in the easy life of the poor. But unlike conservatives, they are vastly outnumbered in that opinion. In a vote for, say, Member of Congress, a candidate who campaigns on the promise to make life "less easy" for the poor stands a pretty good chance of getting elected from one of those homogeneous districts in which poverty is an abstraction.

I am certain that conservatives are not hard-hearted people. If anything, they may have a little too much faith in the free-will motivation of private citizens to help someone in need. As a Democrat, that's why I favor a government that takes as part of its mandate to protect the least among us so as not to leave their well-being to the calculations and fluctuations of personal compassion. As a Jew, that's why I favor a just society that cares for the poor whose hunger and illness must not be held hostage to the judgment of the well-fed and healthy.

The small town (shtetl) that was home to so many European Jews was typified by a hand-to-mouth existence for most people. The poorest Jews relied on the generosity of the wealthiest, but they all relied on each other for community. It is hard for some of our American Jews who enjoy the blessings of wealth to imagine those hardships, including among the less fortunate in our own community. If they fit the profile of Pew study conservatives, then their personal circumstances and isolation from physical and social realities make them residents of a gilded shtetl.