The Zionist Conspiracy
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Is Orthodoxy Economically Viable?
This is a topic I've wanted to post about for a while, but have held off on because of a sense that I need time to coherently express my thoughts and concerns. Since I don't expect to have more time in the near future, I'm quickly submitting the following, which hopefully is at least coherent, even if not up to the best standards:
In a July 2003 post about the kollel system - in which instead of working, young (and even some middle-aged) men study Talmud full-time rather than work for a living - I wrote critically of an "unsustainable system, in which middle-class parents are expected to subsidize (and sometimes fully support) the lives of their children, while a mother of six or eight works full time for a relatively modest salary. As the size of the kollel families grow and the grandparents age, many families will slip into poverty. Once it comes time for the kollel families to marry off their own children, there will be nobody to pay for the weddings, let along support another generation of kollel families. Even now, young men who intend to learn in kollel usually look to marry a woman whose parents are wealthy, rather than one whose own father is in kollel."
Any objective analysis of the kollel system shows that it is not an economically viable one. Already, there is massive reliance on (and exploitation of) government programs by those in kollel and their parents.
Unfortunately, however, we are fast approaching the point at which even two-income families will routinely face financial crises if they wish to remain fully engaged in the Orthodox community.
The tuition crisis is well known. My father has long been the leading voice for radical changes in funding of yeshivas and day schools. Tuition was also recently analyzed and debated in the pages of Jewish Action.
An area that has gotten less attention is the skyrocketing cost of housing, particularly in Orthodox communities in the New York area.
Presumably, housing prices receive less attention because most frum families have already purchased their home, and are beneficiaries of the extraordinary rise is real estate.
For those who do not own a home, assuming that they choose to buy one in the New York area and prices do not plummet, almost all will struggle financially. A fairly modest home purchased today can easily cost $4000 per month when mortgage, real estate taxes and basic maintenance are combined. Add to that tuition of $10,000 for each of four children, and you have a family that before anything else, is paying around $90,000 in after-tax money on housing and tuition alone.
It is probably fair to say that to even break even, a family like that will need at least $200,000 in pre-tax income, and even that will leave them with little left after basic necessities like food, automobile costs, tolls/public transportation costs and clothing are taken into account.
Already now, young frum people are aware that they will need much more to get by than their secular counterparts. As a result, most choose from among a very small number of professions like law, accounting, and medicine. Fewer and fewer young frum schoolteachers, academics, or journalists are to be found.
Ultimately, like kollel, this too is not a viable economic system. Families with income that among the vast majority of Americans would be considered upper middle-class will need substantial tuition relief just to get by, and will be able to save very little money. In contrast to the secular world, where losing one's job is a painful but usually temporary crisis, in the frum world, it already is often a complete disaster that can almost immediately send a family trying to remain engaged in the community into a state of near poverty. In the future, it will likely result in a large number of foreclosures.
Of course, there is no commandment in the Torah that one must own a home or live in the New York area, or in other very expensive places like Los Angeles and Boston. There is nothing wrong with renting, and if one absolutely wants to buy, housing is still much cheaper (though not cheap) in places with significant frum communities like Baltimore and Atlanta or in suburbs of Philadelphia. And as the success of Nefesh b'Nefesh clearly shows, aliyah is a good option too, since state religious schools are free in Israel and semi-private schools are heavily subsidized by the government, and housing costs in cities like Modiin and Beit Shemesh remain relatively affordable.
Still, the reality is that whether because of their own expectations, societal or spousal pressure, or a belief that it is always better to buy than to rent, many frum people will buy houses that they really won't be able to afford in the long run. And many - probably most - who are from New York will want to stay there, because their jobs, families and friends are there and they have few if any ties to anywhere else.
Doubtlessly, many will have fewer children than they otherwise would, which will result in less of a personal financial burden, but also in serious implications for Orthodoxy in other ways. And fewer children, in any event, may mean three children instead of five; most families will still be larger than the American average.
In the Catholic world - where I believe religious school tuition is much more heavily subsidized by the local church than it is by the community in the Jewish world - there has been a significant drop in the number of enrollees in Catholic schools, with many schools around the country closing.
Unless radical changes occur, in the coming decades, we are likely to see more and more frum families overwhelmed by the cost of living in a frum community be unable to send their children to yeshiva. At first, those on the community's left-wing periphery will be ones sending their kids to public school, but it is almost inevitable that even very committed observant families will have no option but to send their children to public school or to home school their children. Once a significant number of frum children are not in yeshiva, it likely will become socially acceptable (albeit not socially optimal) in the community for children to not be in yeshiva, resulting in less pressure on the families, schools, and the community generally, to find a solution to individual problems. Over time, we may well see a three-tier system, with some in yeshiva, some in small makeshift unofficial schools in someone's home, and some in public school.
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions. At best, changes in priorities will alleviate the burden and reduce the number of people who face financial barriers to engagement in the Orthodox Jewish world.