Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's Not Fair!!!!

I supervise the second level writing courses for my college. One of my responsibilities is to choose a theme and associated readings that all second level courses will use for the year. This year the theme is "It's Not Fair!!!" The readings chosen, both fiction and non-fiction, all deal with some element of "fair." The handbook for the course reminds students that "fair" has many definitions and that how fair is applied, to whom, when and where can differ from situation to situation, from time period to time period.

One of the problems with the word fair is that some of its underlying concepts are seen as universal and some are not, or at least not by all people. There are mutiple definitions for fair, some having to do with equality, some with justice and legality, some with morality, some with desire and jealousy. This is where some of our problems in Klal stem from. Some of the issues that concern some/all members of Klal fall under one definition of fair while others should and do fall under other definitions. Yet, many people apply only one definition to all the situations.

Let me illustrate. It is offered that all Jewish children should have access to a Jewish education, to a Torah-based education. The model that is in place, for the most part, is a full-day yeshiva/day school form of education. That is, both secular studies and Jewish studies are handled within the same school setting. Most people, when asked, prefer this type of education for their children. And if asked, most people would say that all Jewish children should have this type of education, that it is "only fair" that all children, regardless of circumstances, should be given this type of education. If you mention money, many people get huffy. "Money should have no place in the discussion of a child's education" is a frequent rejoinder. Makes for nice philosophy, but as a practical matter money not only has a place in discussing education, it takes first place.

One solution to the money issue in yeshiva education has been to introduce a type of fairness that we can call "forced equality." If parent X does not have the money or all of the money to pay for yeshiva tuition then fairness demands that someone else put up that money. If parent Y does have the money to pay for tuition, then Parent Y is not only going to pay his children's tuition, but Parent Y is going to be forced to throw even more money into the school so that Parent X's children will be equal to Parent Y's children. If this also results in Parent Y suddenly finding himself with less money to spend on himself and his family, if it results in Parent Y's finding himself in a financial pinch, this is all fine. After all, fairness isn't worried about what other things Parent Y could find to do with the money (Note: those things to do with the money are not about buying luxuries but could very well be helping out elderly parents, funding a retirement account etc.); fairness is interested in having Parent X's children on par with Parent Y's children.

In the above situation fairness and equality are using a lowest common denominator approach. No one has a right to be "more" equal than anyone else. Equality has a low baseline. No one seems to care, or at least only a few people seem to care, that beggaring Parent Y to be fair to Parent X is itself unfair to Parent Y.

We have the Jewish concept of tzedaka and of giving ma'aser. Ma'aser is calculated as 10% of your earnings, or sometimes at 20%. Nowhere have I read, however, that we are required to beggar ourselves in order to give tzedaka. Nowhere have I read that 50% is a requirement. Yet, that is the outcome when Parent Y is supporting an alphabet of other parents' children.

At some point, and it had better be sooner than later, Klal is going to have to redefine its use of fairness as it applies to tuition. Is it a fair, just idea that all Jewish children receive a Jewish education? I won't argue that. Is it fair that only a small part of Klal is being forced to pay the tab for that education? Nope. Is it fair that people who could presumably work so that they could pay tuition or at least part of tuition are routinely let off the hook? Nope. Is it fair that people who routinely work hard, very hard, and make money, sometimes a lot of money, that could be used for their family--immediate and extended--are looked at as rashayim who need to be "equalized"? Nope. Yes, it is fair that Klal extend a hand to those who, through no fault of their own and with plenty of effort put in, cannot pay the tab for educating their children. But where is the seichal in deciding who pays and how much? There is something more than a little off in any society that villifies those with money while at the same time reaching deeply into those people's pockets.


Sarah said...

One problem is that people don't look at those who are paying the outrageously high full tuitions as being in any way giving tzedaka. You certainly can't take off any part of your tuition as a charitable giving, even though the reality is that you are donating more to the school so that other kids who pay only some or no tuition can go. Try telling some tzedaka organization that you can't donate to them because you are paying full tuition and they will tell you that tuition is not tzedaka and you still have to give maaser. Someone needs to redefine giving maaser.

efrex said...

While I agree with most of this piece, I should point out that the laws of tzedaka can be significantly more complex than just 10 or 20%; indeed, in a fully halachic sytem, a beit din can forcibly confiscate funds from a wealthy person to pay for a poor person's needs, regardless of the amount of tzedaka the wealthy person has already given (I've been learning Sefer Hachinuch for the last few years with a lawyer friend of mine, and I find it fascinating how difficult it is to pigeonhole halacha into contemporary political/social structures). Certainly, however, there needs to be some sensible communal understanding as to what is a reasonable expectation for individual responsibility.

Rae said...

I think the problem is that charging full tuition paying parents more to make up for the deficit of non-full paying parents is seen as forced tzedaka, the only case we actually have today. And no, it's not spelled out for what it is, which is giving tzedaka to these non-paying parents. In every other case we get to decide if we want to give money or not to a particular organization or person. And Sarah is right that at least we get to deduct those donations on our taxes.

If we're talking about fair, the schools should set tuition lower and then ask us to donate extra, which doesn't cover our own kids' expenses, and take it off of taxes as what it really is.

mchast said...

Ultimately, the situation is the same as socialism and communism. Socialism believes in equality of results, rather than equality of opportunity. Socialism says that any situation where one person has more money than another is unfair and the situation needs to be rectified. Capitalism says that as long as both sides could have made money, than differences in income are not as significant. This is just another proof of how Jewish Education has become socialist.

Anonymous said...

mchast: you are mixing up communism with socialism. Judaism is essentially socialist in many ways.

The fact of the matter is that the world is not fair and part of tikun olam is rectifying some of that unfairness.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should continue the example of equalization of tuition further. When family A is making a shidduch for their daughter and kicks in $X, if family B that is also making a shidduch for their daughter can only afford $Y (less than $X), we should require that family A kick in some extra money so that the daughter and son in law of family B can start off on an equal level as the daughter and son in law of family A.

Makes almost as much sense.


arnie draiman said...

well said, very good points raised. as far as jewish law is concerned (and i am not a posek....), you MUST not give tzedakah money where the giving puts you in a position to be asking for tzedakah money (and, in fact, the rambam says that doing so is on par with "shfichat dameem" - murder).

some great ideas for tzedakah include:


arnie draiman

Tuition Talk said...

Good post. Equality is overrated and misunderstood in the vast majority of cases.

Additionally, a big problem with tuition is how it affects tzedaka giving. Our community is schizophrenic in how we view tzedaka obligations and who we think needs the most amount of help.