Monday, February 6, 2012

Times Change--Do We?

I've mentioned before that when my first child started yeshiva, the cost was $300 a year for full tuition. Yes, you read that correctly. And the cost of my first apartment in Brooklyn was $125 a month for a 4-room apartment. Hamburger and chicken were both in the 19 cents a pound range. Fruit store apples and large tomatoes might cost you 4-5 cents a piece. Milk was in the 20 cent per quart range.

Salaries? I had a graduate fellowship that paid me $135 a week, for which I also taught undergraduate courses. My hubby was making $125 a week for a full-time job while going to school to get his BA four nights a week. CUNY was free at the time, costing only $15 a term in registration fees, so students graduating college from CUNY were not going to be in mega debt for their education. A few years later after my hubby graduated and he changed jobs he was making the "incredible" salary of $16K a year. I wasn't working full time then because I had two kids and a third on the way. Yet, on that money we could afford to buy a house, pay the expenses, pay our first tuitions, eat, and yes, put away a little money in savings. Granted, a lot of today's "necessities" such as cellphones and cable television and the Internet and computers just weren't there, so budgetting was easier.

Now fast forward to today. in 37 years the cost of tuition has gone from that $300 a year to $10-18K a year. In 40 years that chicken has gone up to $1.99-3.29 a pound, more than 10 times as expensive. Yes, obviously there has been inflation in that 40-year period, and I don't expect that everything today should cost just what it did back then.

But here's the thing--look at salary ranges today. A starting salary in my husband's field today is in the mid $30K range. An entry-level accounting job advertised through the school's placement office is in the $30-40K range, and there are no benefits being given. Look at a frum couple around four years after marriage and here's what you are likely to see. Two children and possibly three already. The first of those kids is already heading to school, possible the second as well. And even if we were to say that both husband and wife are working, bringing in anywhere from $50-80K per year total? Start adding up the "required" expenses and that money is being stretched to the breaking point. If the wife isn't working, there is no money to stretch--this couple cannot afford its expenses.

Yes, I know that there are some who will make far more than those starting salary figures given. And maybe some of them will not have any debt problems, and maybe some of them will, depending on the number of children, the type of home purchased and where it was purchased, the tax bracket, the cost of tuitions in their area etc..

In short, the time today is not like the time when I got married. Costs are different and the expense to salary ratio is different. What is not different are the expectations of couples getting married today. They expect they will have what their parents had and then some.

The sad but true fact is that the times have changed, and our expectations will have to change as well, whether we like it or not. We "expect" to have large families? And they will be paid for using what? We expect that all our kids will attend yeshiva through elementary school, high school and that "required" year in Israel? Their tuitions will be paid for using what? Those houses that are big enough to comfortably accomodate those large families will be paid for using what? Those costly simchas will be paid for using what? Those electronic gizmos and all the other "must haves" will be paid for using what?

Compromise and accomodation are apparently two words not in the Jewish dictionary, at least not yet. They are going to have to become part of our language because it has become more than clear that a whole lot of Klal cannot afford to live without massive debt or handouts. Change is going to have to happen, and the sooner the better.


tesyaa said...

Lots of good points in this post.

Ratio of tuition to rent is interesting. Let's say the rent for a decent 4-room apartment is $1500 today. Tuition would be $3600 per year at the multiple it was back then. $2000 rent = $4800 tuition. You get the idea.

Why has tuition grown at a rate 3x that of rent?

Hudi said...

Using your numbers tuition has gone up more than any other thing we pay for. My first kid is in school this year at $11K for full tuition. Salary pretax is $38K. Next year there will be two in school and the chances of a raise between now and then are zero.

One thing my wife and I know is that we can't afford to buy in the community we rent in. In a few more years we won't even be able to afford to rent here, when we have 3 kids in school.

Assume we have reasons we have to stay in the NY area. Where do we look to live that will cut expenses down? Assume my wife will be back at work once the kids are in school so salary amount will go up. What communities offer relatively affordable housing, with lower tuitions?

Zehava said...

One thing alluded to is the necessity of women working for a family to meet basic expenses. At what cost? So much is expected from today's moms. Full time jobs that don't bring you home before 5 or 6 and for some later. How is this hurting our children?

Contrast that to last generation where there were more stay at home moms - where families could meet their budget on one income. Where if women worked they did "women's jobs" that had less hours and expectations.

JS said...


Interesting post. I remember stories from my parents regarding CUNY and how students would protest when fees went from (I'm making this up, but it's illustrative) $20 to $50 a semester.

If costs are going to keep going up then expectations have to drastically change and that may require rabbinic intervention for those concerned with that. For example, it's simply not economically feasible nowadays to have kids so young. It completely derails a woman's career and puts the children in yeshiva before the parents have any ability to pay for it. I don't see that changing, but it's a major issue. At the very least, it something that needs to be planned for communally if the rabbis aren't going to get involved (after all, it hardly seems right to tell couples they must procreate immediately and then not support their doing so).

To zehava's point, it's a different world nowadays. Both spouses work throughout all religions and cultures in America. It's not possible to get by on one income, especially not in the NYC area. If we value stay at home moms, we should act on that and come up with ways of making that feasible, I don't see it happening.

If anything, I think we need to be pushing two career families and supporting working spouses (men and women). The expense side is a huge problem, but so is the income side - people cannot afford their lifestyles.

Another issue is expectations. Young couple lives in a hole of an appartment scrimping and saving, then buy a house and have kids. The kids only know from the nice house and are not made to appreciate the hard work that went into buying that house. That creates expectations and gets coupled with wanting to make sure your kids have it better than you (and measuring success by doing better than your parents).

Finally, the financial incentives in the community are out of whack. It hardly makes sense to kill yourself when all it does is cause you to give over more money to the yeshivas. So, have the kids young, work in less demanding jobs - you still get many of the same luxuries. Sure you'll be worse off in the long-run, but humans are surprisingly short-sighted.