Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Orthodox Poverty and Wealth

I see great wealth in the Orthodox community. I see great poverty in the Orthodox community. In the liberal Jewish community I personally have not encountered poverty. My cohort both Orthodox and secular have had an economically relatively easy life. When I was young, kolel people used to say to me ‘Why go to college? America is so rich you can live off the crumbs.’ They were right. The post war period has been an incredible run. I am afraid our children, frum or not will not have it so easy. I see it everywhere. Young have to hustle and even then it’s iffy. In the case of Orthodox with large families the parents frequently are unable to help the next generation. Not so for liberal Jews where parents frequently subsidize their children’s perpetual identity crisis. The very rich have gotten filthy, astronomically rich. The middle class have fallen behind. Here are some more thoughts on the topic, some of which were inspired by the comments on the blog askshifra

Yeshivas and day schools are the primary cause of Orthodox poverty. The OU reports communal rabbis are faced with increasing shalom bayit issues, marital problems, because of the economic difficulties caused by the high costs of educating kids in day schools. Middle class people can’t get scholarships for their kids. By the time they finish paying tuition they are poor enough to be eligible for tuition reductions. Catch 22. There are formulas for dealing with this issue, since it is structurally similar to the problem the poor face when they try to get off welfare. I don’t know why they are not standard practice. It is outrageous that tuition committees require second mortgages and the like before giving any discounts.

The deeper problem is how to bring the school costs down. Every city should look into developing a tuition fund. Liberal Jews MUST be made to understand how important school vouchers are for the survival of the Orthodox Jewish community. The cynical part of me says they understand fully well how it would benefit the Orthodox world, and it is precisely for this reason they oppose vouchers. The attitudes of the major Jewish organizations like the AJC and ADL to vouchers is driven by many considerations. One of these is, in my opinion, anti -Orthodox sentiments.

Many Orthodox Jews have a lower standard of living than their parents even when they are professionals, and even after they have accumulated sizable debts. Most Orthodox women work, if at all possible. In order to make ends meet many resort to extreme measures, cutting back on expensive foods, no vacations, no eating out and much more. I see the effects of belt tightening here where I live. Evanston with its large college population has 70 restaurants. The community of people who eat kosher in Chicagoland should have on a proportional basis approximately 21 restaurants. There are around 7 including diners and very minimal places.

People who have difficulty making ends meet still give money to charity, at least a few percent. I find this trait so very impressive.

In the frum world people say, as an irony of contemporary life, poverty starts at $100,000. It is an exaggeration, but not by very much. I would think a family of six in the New York area that aspires to a low- end upper middle class life, i.e. some family vacations, some eating out, some entertainment, two cars, etc. must think in terms of $250,000 gross and maybe more. A more serious upper class life for a family with five kids buying more than a minimal home, not wealthy, just really comfortable, (e.g. a brownstone in a charedi equivalent of Park Slope say the five towns, a pied a terre in Jerusalem or a place in Florida, colleges and professional schoolsfor the kinderlach, trips to Israel and Machu Pichu, Pesach at a hotel for the extended family, mildly lavish life cycle celebrations, a position of significance in the community) is $400,000 plus. Low- end rich starts at a million dollars income annually. Very rich $50 million. I am curious to hear if readers agree with my estimates.

Neighborhoods that are walking distance from a desirable Orthodox shul are pricier than those that are not, apples for apples. Many families would be able to lower their cost of living and find better and cheaper housing if they moved to less Orthodox neighborhoods and cities around the country. The fear of the unknown, of finding a job, of being able to do a good shiduch with their children keep many close to home. Here is an area where a lot can be done. There are many small Orthodox communities around the country that would be excited if new frum couples moved in. It is a typical case of asymmetric information and the solutions are well known.

Money and the need for more of it is the driving dynamic force in the community. The old joke makes this point in a sly way. A car hit an elderly Jewish man. The paramedic says, "Are you comfortable?"- The man says, "I make a good living." Parenting, daily prayers and the quest for money keep most Orthodox Jews very busy campers. There isn’t a lot of empty time for fun and mischief, sports and culture or scholarship and self improvement. With the exception of the community of Talmudic scholars there isn’t very much time for extended Torah study.

In reading the blogs on the economics of Orthodox life, I felt that the situation was made much worse because Orthodoxy is a face-to-face community. It’s as if everybody was asked to go into a room, they locked the door and threw the key away. The need to keep up with one’s circle of friends and acquaintances, the need to impress others, accentuates the pressure to maintain a certain lifestyle. In life almost everyone has up years and down years. It becomes a lot easier if in a down year you can cut back. In a face-to-face community, tightening one’s belt is much more difficult. Orthodox life in smaller cities and towns is less of a pressure cooker. And it goes without saying, that in liberal Jewish communities, which are not face-to-face communities, the economic struggle is a lot easier, even if you factor out the cost of Yeshivas and day schools.


At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you go on chicago jewish news' website and check out the yearly jewish chicago supplement, you will count closer to 20 eating establishments in the chicagoland area.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I went to the CRC site, the one you suggested didn’t come up, and I counted 11 restaurants, 3 of which have good food, though nothing to write home about. 3 restaurants are pizza joints (I forgot about one). 2 restaurants are Chinese, one of which is in a Jewel’s supermarket and, in my mind, doesn’t count. 2 bagel places and one carry-out, round out the list. You were counting places like ice-cream parlors, catering places, and kosher Dunkin’ Donuts. I should’ve said there are 3 full-time restaurants that are acceptable and only one where you can bring business clients.

At 5:30 PM, Blogger DAG said...

Vouchers were never meant to help subsidies children who would go to private schools in any event.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham said...

"Face-to-Face" communities? Sorry, we here in Israel don't understand this term! Could someone elaborate?

At 7:17 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

A face to face community is like a shul or kibbutz, where everyone knows everyone. A non-face to face community is like a large town where you know only some people, yet everyone considers themselves to belong to the same community.

Dag...and why not? In the original Milton Friedman proposal, education is privatized and everyone is issued a voucher. And I believe in the current crop of experiments in vouchers they are not discriminating on the basis of whether you would have sent your kid to private school. If I am wrong ,please tell.

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous dzerzh said...

A great essay - thank you!

Your $$ "breakpoints" for lifetyles are absolutely right on. One question, after a short miseh:

I used to give a little money to something called "The Ark", under the impression that it took care of indigent and relatively helpless Jews (in my mind, largely the elderly, widows and orphans, etc., etc.). I went there once and saw a c. 35-year-old starker, followed by a young healthy looking woman and a BUNCH of little kids. They were all dressed as you might imagine, but their overall aura was charming, attractive and BRIGHT in the sense of luminous. I was happy. I asked at the desk where the family was taking the big sacks of groceries they were being given, and was told, "It's all for them -they're a big family". My next question, "Why can't that guy support his family?" was answered, "oh, he doesn't work - he studies!" That was the end of my philanthropy.

Obviously, Orthodox people I know are intelligent, cultured (yes, highbrow) and immensely productive in ways that are often financially fruitful. How pervasive do you think the value portrayed by my Ark trip really is, and might it not be a factor in peoples' thinking about external support for that Community, and might not ordinary secular Jews with their already hardened prejudices extrapolate from my anecdotal starker to poorer parts of the Orthodox community as a whole?

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous MF said...

i don't understand your blog entry. first, you say that it is becoming harder for people to make enough money to survive; and then, you define poverty as *being among the wealthiest human beings in the history of the world*: make no mistake about it, if you're earning us$100,000/year, not only are you making more money than almost every single human on the entire planet (even adjusted for inflation and price differentials!) (there are whole *countries* where the numbers of people who make that much money are in the *thousands*), but also, you're making more money than almost every single human being who has ever lived! That's a bizarre definition of poverty!

not to mention, the lifestyle you describe is the lifestyle of the wealthy: living in one of the fanciest places in the universe (the New York area) that half the planet aspires to live in, being able to eat out, having multiple cars, have cell phones, have the Internet, medical care with our amazing drugs and cures, etc -- in a world where half the planet subsides on $1/day and almost the entire world throughout history has never had access to the things you've have -- how is this lifestyle not luxurious? and, at what point in lifestyle living an absolute and utter luxury been accessible to the common man? (i have a tough time thinking of a society where luxury is *more* accessible than the USA today).

so, your friend said 50 years ago, "Why go to college? America is so rich you can live off the crumbs." -- and you respond by saying that's no longer true of America -- but my response is -- *of course that IS true -- if you want to live the lifestyle of 50 years ago* (and that was true of america 100 years ago and 200 years ago and 300 years ago) -- the country was endowed with space, land, natural animals you could kill and cook, it's always been true that if you wanted to just merely get by on the crumbs you could! But, if you want to live in the best of america today - just like if, 100 years ago, you wanted to live in the best of america then, etc - then that's a different story. but if you don't want contemporary quality clothing, don't want air conditioning, don't want a car, don't want dental and medical work, don't want the internet, don't want a personal computer, don't want a cell phone, don't want to eat out regularly, don't want anything -- then, it is very very easy to live the lifestyle of 50 years ago!!! Oh, but that's not good enough and you want an even better lifestyle, and to also have contemporary-standard medical care and a cell phones and the Internet and an apartment in a beautiful building? Then work harder rather than live off our crumbs!

Also, if we forget the above points, and only compare ourselves with the USA 50 years ago, then, when you look at it both statistically and anecdotally, it seems like, people living off the "crumbs" of society, their life has gotten *better and better*. 50 years ago, the medical care they got (which they didn't pay for) would have resulted in much much worse than the medical care they get today (which they still don't pay for). the people living off the crumbs of society today use the internet to learn and communicate with friends and family and meet people around the world -- i know because i've gotten many e-mails from homeless men, as a result of my job, telling me how much they love what I do (I'm not going in to details on my job here, but EvanstanJew understands and knows). if you live off the crumbs today, our social welfare system is much more extensive than it was 50 years ago. if you live off the crumbs today, you can buy dinner at mcdonalds for $0.99 -- adjusted for inflation, is much much much cheaper than any hamburger or meal they could have gotten then ($1 is now 10 minutes of work at minimum wage; 50 years ago it was an hour's worth of work at minimum wage, and that's not taking into account the fact that burgers probably cost ten cents then!). anecdotally, we would hear stories of tiny apartments with 10 people crowded together in tenements in the LES; now, you're considered poor if *each child doesn't have their own bedroom*!



At 10:55 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

They used to say of Reb Chaim Brisker that when he answered a difficulty, people couldn’t figure out how there could have ever been a question. When you attack an imaginary target, I forget what the original question was. Just kidding. One more time. Parent of four, making $100,000 a year/$75,000 after taxes comes before tuition committee and they ask for $60,000 since he’s not poor. If he gives the money, he’s living on $25,000. If he doesn’t, his kids have to go to public schools. Cheder in the old country was not a big ticket item. Here, it eats up all discretionary income. It’s a bit like Whole Foods. Our mutual friend calls it Whole Paycheck.

In general, I agree with your observations.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

EvanstonJew-Good post. I think there is no problem with sacrificing to live an Orthodox life.

But, there is sacrifice and sacrifice.

And the tuition being carried by some families is clearly a burden that entails too much sacrifice for some. It affects the spiritual, emotional, and financial well being of so many. And a Jewish education is quickly becoming a product of the wealthy and the poor, as the middle class seems to receive very little.

Unfortunately, it seems that the community has dug this grave and I'm not sure if we can get out of it now or not.

For many "middle class" Jews, affording tuition is not just a matter of living frugally. If it was, I don't think we would be discussing the issue.

And, today, there are no tenenments to live in and kids can't wonder the streets unattended and alone. So, I think ideas like stuffing a family of 5-7 in a one bedroom apartment is a non-discussion-starter.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

Evanston-Drop me a line if it is OK to link to your post.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous MF said...

Evanston Jew -

Your response suggests that your post was really making the point that the cost of attending a yeshiva has far, far outstripped inflation and changes in the median income over the last century. If that's your point, then maybe I agree with you, maybe not (I don't know about the financial aid situation in these yeshivas, I really have no idea, what % of a median family's income went towards tuition 100 years ago vs today, etc) - so I don't know and have no opinion on the matter.

However, I think we might be speaking a different language, because I didn't read that from your post at all; what I was responding to in your post was the following paragraph (and other parts of that paragraph and your post), which I guess I misunderstood completely. Still reading it again now, I don't see how it is merely a point about the increase in the price of a Yeshiva, I'm still interpreting your words here as stating pretty bluntly, that you need on the *order of magnitude* a $100k annual income in order to not be "poor" if you're frum today -- and therefore, my above analysis still stands. You seem to state very explicitly and, according to my knowledge of the language, pretty unambiguously:

"In the frum world people say, as an irony of contemporary life, poverty starts at $100,000. It is an exaggeration, but not by very much. I would think a family of six in the New York area that aspires to a low- end upper middle class life, i.e. some family vacations, some eating out, some entertainment, two cars, etc. must think in terms of $250,000 gross and maybe more."

Also note -- let's say you factor in $60k annual for Yeshiva costs and you're left with a salary of $40k (like you mention in your response). Then a just-slightly-weaker version of my above points still stands: rather than being among the wealthiest 0.0000000001% of human beings who have ever lived, that would only put you among the wealthiest 0.000000001% of human beings who have never lived, and would still give you lots and lots of access to the luxuries of modern life, including cell phones, the internet, air conditioning, cheap good clothing, modern medical and dental care, etc.


At 8:07 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

mf...your point is valid if a family of four is left with $20M a year. Compared to the masses of Africa ,China and India they are not poor.What counts as poverty in a country is relative to the country.What feels poor is relative to a community and peer group. A similar debate is going on in Israel, where poverty is defined as half the median income. Perhaps 'feels impoverished' would be a more appropriate term.

At 3:30 AM, Blogger Prisstopolis said...

By calling for school vouchers, you are participating in the movement to abolish public schools. Subsidizing private education with public funds would be at a level too low to provide children of lower-income families with the same services they recieve now. Because private schools have to compete with public schools, they currently have incentive to keep tuition as low as possible. When public schools are gone, tuition rates will skyrocket.

Even if a public voucher program would benefit some Orthodox children, I'd hate to see them grow up in a country where large numbers of people are completely uneducated.

Subsidies from within the religious community make sense. These could come from the wealthy or from ordinary people whose children are no longer school age.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Alexis said...

School vouchers are not the answer. Orthodox people seem to think that vouchers mean "the government will hand us money and we can do what we like". If vouchers were ever adopted on a large scale, the government would demand accountability. How many yeshivot would want the government dictating what they could teach? MO schools, which are committed to a full secular education, might be somewhat amenable, but RW schools--never. And even if the idea of giving religious organisations could pass constitutional muster, would it be acceptable to fund schools that openly practise religious discrimination in selecting staff and pupils?

(I live in the UK, where faith schools are funded... if they teach what the government demands. Unsurprisingly, it's modern schools that are state funded.)

At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

orthodox jews are probably not nearly as interested in eating out regularly as others. People just dont have the time. There are the simchas you detail, plus time with the kids. It's generally younger kids and young couples and older couples who go out. The middle aged dont have enough time to do it often even if they can afford it.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I once punched realistic figures for Orthodox life in Israel into this spreadhseet http://www.greengart.com/Teaneckshuls.htm (at bottom left of the page). The numbers came out to half of the amounts on the Baltimore (lowest cost city of the 3) amount listed. And this spreadsheet is horribly outdated. I can't overestimate how easy it is to eat out in Israel on a middle class income - too easy if my heart doctor has any say in the matter!!

Vouchers will ultimately INCREASE yeshiva tuitions - just as Pell Grants raised college tuitions. The extra money will go into the pockets of the owners of the schools. Chinuch may then become a lucrative profession but no one will be able to afford a proper chinuch.

Most Jews came to Eretz Yisrael because they were thrown out - or economically forced out - of where they were. There are only a few yechidei segula who came willingly. American Jewry has had over 55 years of an opportunity to be like Yisrael Aumann and come willingly. They have blown it. Yet, if more come because they are "tuition refugees" then so be it - it's still a good thing for the Jews

At 12:11 AM, Blogger TM (Jewlicious) said...

This is not just an Orthodox problem. This is a Jewish problem in all movements and all forms of affiliation. If you seek to provide a Jewish day school education to children you find yourself having to cut significantly and sometimes impossibly on your standard of living.

While I believe MF's points are well made and indeed there's no question that we are an affluent society compared to other nations and to this country 50 years ago, Evanston Jew's point still holds true because the mortgage that needs to be paid is paid in today's USA, and the food that needs to be purchased in bought in today's supermarket and can be quite costly especially if you keep kosher and aren't a vegetarian.

The solution, however, lies not in vouchers. The solution lies in a few areas. First, it's important to note that most Orthodox institutions of learning that receive funding from their city's community are being subsidized by non-Orthodox Jews. I don't have the time to look up the data right now but in a similar conversation on Jewlicious I was able to pull up Jewish community stats that prove this point. In this regard, it might be helpful if the Orthodox community would stop besmirching those of us who aren't Orthodox and attacking our communities' non-Orthodox rabbis are something akin to Christian missionaries.

Second, there needs to be a significant pooling of funds and outreach to large-scale benefactors of the community to create a broad endowment to facilitate Jewish education across the country to all branches of Judaism. Our billionaires may be generous toward the community, but I am speaking about making $100 and $200 million pledges that would establish a multi-billion dollar fund from which schools can draw resources. The fund needs to be non-denominational but strict about minimal number of weekly hours of Jewish oriented study and the quality of education provided both in Judaica and secular studies.

Finally, the quality of the education provided needs to improve across the board. Ultimately, the community benefits by having well educated children who are raised in a Jewish school environment. If we keep underpaying teachers and playing politics within schools because of donors or underqualified leadership, we undermine the potential of these schools to grow and succeed. Success begets more success because more money becomes available, and the children of the parents become parents themselves and begin to support the schools...

Perhaps the Orthodox community is feeling this crisis in the pocketbook. Those of us who are not Orthodox, are feeling it there as well, but in many other ways as well and getting non-Orthodox Jews to send their kids to these schools will involve lowering the barriers of entry (cost) and improving the quality of education (so that it can compete and exceed the public schools but also some of the "competing" private schools).

At 4:11 AM, Blogger jewish said...

kosher eating in chicago is the WORST. the cRc doesn't make it very easy. They should be making it easier for more people to keep kosher, not making a living of the keeping of kosher, which they are. Otherwise they'd find ways to subsidize or otherwise facilitate the opening of new kosher eateries. Its a shonde that there's no certified kosher eateries between Rogers Park and the Loop. Nothing Downtown. Nothing in Lakeview. Nothing in Hyde Park or Lincoln Park and don't get me started on Wicker Park. There are some reasons for this that lie with the cRc... Post on that!

At 5:36 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

In general, I think Va'adim could be more flexible. But, there is no reason for a community to subsidize resturants. Many fail as it is, and there are plenty of things that need subsidized. A potential profit producing enterprise need not be one of those things.

At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Bracha said...

As a liberal Jew, I am appalled by what would be considered anti-semitic remarks in this blog if it were written by a non-Jew. I do not support yeshivas and orthodox institutions because I believe in the full participation of women in society. I am against vouchers because I don't want public money to subsidize Christian fundamentalist schools. One has a choice to have many children or not. Most private schools depend on private donors. I have the liberty to not support orthodox education on sound philosophical differences, not because of some conspiracy against orthodoxy. Please exhibit respect for other Jews.


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