Friday, February 05, 2021

How Do They Do It?

Alexandra Fleksher (Mishpacha online)
The always thoughtful Alexandra Fleksher explores an issue in her Mishpacha Magazine column that affects many Orthodox Jews. An issue that I like to call, ‘Keeping up with the Cohens and Katzes’. 

The way I just framed it though might seem self explanatory. But it is not as simple as it looks. It is true that the idea of keeping up with the ones neighbors is not a real value. One need not have a new Lexus just because our neighbor does. 

Obviously if someone is below the poverty line, this will not be an issue for him. He probably has trouble just feeding his family,  paying his rent, and paying utilities. It is also not a problem for the wealthy. If you are a multi-millionaire, buying a Lexus is no big deal. This problem exists for the vast majority of Orthodox Jews that falls in the broad spectrum that is between those extremes. What we might call the Orthodox Jewish Middle Class. 

These are people that should have some discretionary income and should be able to afford things beyond the bare necessities. How much that is per middle income family ranges from a lot to a little. In the case of Orthodox Jews, the range skews upward. Which means that the bare necessities of our families require quite a bit more money for our bare necessities. 

The cost of keeping a kosher home and buying kosher food is a lot more  than is the cost for those that don’t keep kosher. The average family size of the Orthodox family is bigger too - requiring greater expenditures on that food and on clothing. 

Pesach requires the purchase of almost an entire new pantry and refrigerator filled with ‘Kosher L’Pesach’ food. There is also the high cost of hand Shmurah Matzah. And if your are having extended family over for the Seder, food costs go up considerably. 

But all that is nothing compared to the cost of educating our children. Tuition costs are through the roof! If we want to have quality teachers for both religious and secular studies… if we want state of the art facilities, if we want hands on administrators and counselors that know what they are doing, if we want a decent building in which to house the school, the tuition will reflect the cost of all those things. If you have the average size family of five children, multiply those tuition costs by a factor of 5. To just pick a number at random, if tuition is $10,000 per year, you will be spending $50,000 per year just to educate your children. By contrast, parents who send their children to public school pay nothing. 

Alexandra poses the obvious question. You would need to make at least six figure income to have enough to pay all of your basic obligations. (Which of course includes income taxes). That leaves nothing for discretionary spending. To put it the way Alexandra did: 

Even top 10% earners in the United States (earning $158,002 in 2018 according to data published by the Economic Policy Institute) do not make enough to sustain a frum family without financial aid in most Orthodox communities. 

That is true. One might be surprised that partial scholarships are sometimes given even to parents in that income bracket. 

Because schools have to fundraise to make the up the loss of income by the scholarships, they are given as sparingly as possible. Which means that if parents cannot afford full tuition, they must pay as much as they can afford after meeting their basic living needs. Again, leaving little for discretionary spending.

This is where the ‘Fuzzy Math’ Alexandra talks about comes in. There are standards of the Orthodox community that exceed basic needs. All of which costs money that most families do not have. And yet it is not hard to see the typical middle income family living up to those standards. They have nice homes that are well furnished, they dress fashionably, drive nice cars, take nice vacations, and still have money left over to make nice - sometimes even lavish weddings and Bar Mitzvahs for their children that (pre-COVID) typically had as many as 300 attendees or more. Where do they get the money? How do they do it? Even if they are among the 10 percenters? 

The answers are not that simple and they vary. As do the incomes of the Orthodox Jewish middle class. Some earn enough to buy those things and some do not. Sometimes parents help out. In some cases they live in constant debt – borrowing money or maxing out credit cards just to keep up to the standards everybody else in the community seems to have.  

I don’t know what the proportions of each of these are among our middle class. But it seems that somehow people make it all work. Or do they? How much serious debt a family might incur by keeping up with community standards is unknown to me. But I fear it is a lot worse that one might think. 

If one wants to not go into debt and does not have enough money to live up to those standards and be considered ‘normal’, what are they supposed to do? This is Alexandra’s dilemma. In other words it isn’t about excess. It’s about being normal in the community we live in. 

I have no good answers. Scholarships should never be given to subsidize a families ability to live up to what seems like the forever increasing community standards. So the tuition expense is not going to change other then increasing. 

One suggestion that might work is to just say, ‘No’! In my view the very wealthy among us are the driving up our community standards. We do not have to emulate them. You do not need to buy a luxury vehicle every year. You can buy a late model car and keep it a few years. Or even a new car that is not a luxury vehicle and keep it for 5 years or more. You don’t need to be the most fashionably dressed person on the block. You don’t need to have 300 people at your child’s wedding. and certainly not at his Bar Mitzvah You don’t need to have a fancy vacation. You don’t need to go to Florida for Yeshiva week.  You don’t go to a fancy hotel in Switzerland or Viet Nam for Pesach. You don’t need to buy your children the latest I-phone; or other electronic gadget; or the most expensive sneakers. 

A little belt tightening can go a long way to relieving the pressure. Because if we don’t do that, community standards will keep going up – driven by the wealthy. And that does not bode well for our spiritual health. This does not mean we have to live at poverty level. But there is a lot of space between the two extremes.

Just a few of my quick thoughts.