Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Is secular education and work a viable answer for Charedi poverty?

Everyone who discusses Charedi poverty proposes as a solution secular education and work for Charedi men as the solution for Charedi poverty. I also used to believe this, however, I have changed my mind on this for the reasons below.

One of the tenets of Charedi society is large families. There is a Mitzva D'Rabbanan of ולערב אל תנח ידיך to have as many children as you can. Therefore the average non-Chasidic Charedi family has 6 kids and when you take away all of those couples with fertility issues that have 0, 1 or 2 kids the average goes up closer to 8.

Large families are not economically sustainable in a modern western economy, period. Here is a fascinating article Children aren’t worth very much—that’s why we no longer make many which details the reasons why. Basically children have gone from being valuable assets to being financial drains. The cost of raising a single child to the age of 18 in the US is estimated at well over $300,000. These numbers are for the general population, raising a child as a religious Jew is much more expensive due to the cost of education. When you multiply that by 5,6,7, or 8 it simply impossible on the average or even better then average salary in a Western economy.

The average salary in the US is about $42,000, in Israel it is about 7200 shekels a month. Lets assume that the Charedi man can get a job at double the average salary, $80,000 or 15,000 shekel a month (a dubious assumption but lets use it just to highlight the issue) and has 8 kids. Income taxes eat away at least 25% leaving $60,000 to live on. All of the kids are in school together at some point. Tuition in the US is at a minimum $5000 and generally much more, but even at $5000 a child that is $40,000, 2/3 of the net income. That leaves just $20,000 for everything else and everything else includes clothes for 8 kids, shoes for 8 kids, books for 8 kids, etc. Feeding 8 kids is not cheap either. Food is expensive especially things like meat and chicken. Then of course you have the summers where everyone needs to go to camp which again is another few thousand dollars a child.

In Israel the numbers are similar bad, taxes are higher so the 15,000 shekel gross is at best 10,000 shekel net and then tuition is half of that and you have food, clothing etc. again.

The numbers just don't add up even with much higher salaries then $80,000.

If the numbers are so bad how does Charedi society survive today? In truth, I don't know exactly but here are a few reasons

  1. Government programs - Both the US and Israeli government have a whole host of programs that are available to poor people, food stamps, section 8, medicaid, property tax reductions, subsidised day care, etc. The Charedi population takes full advantage of all of these and lives in large part off of them.
  2. Generational money - The post war generation was able to save up money for their descendant who are living off of it. This will not clearly not last much longer.
    1. They worked in a economic good times
    2. The cost of living was low
    3. Smaller families
  3. Poverty and sacrifice. The Charedi population especially in Israel is very poor. 
  4. Community help
Unfortunately these don't translate to working families. As soon as you make a decent salary, you lose all of the government help, if you make $80,000/15,000 shekel you are considered rich and get nothing from the government. The same goes for community help. People are willing to give Tzedaka/help out someone who is sitting and learning, but are much less willing to help someone who is working for a living. 

There is another factor which comes into play. When the man is sitting and learning, the wife is willing to sacrifice because she has been taught all her life that sitting and learning is the most important thing her husband can do and that she should sacrifice for it. As soon as the husband leaves kollel and goes out to work, that dynamic changes. It is much harder to sacrifice when your husband is working, when he is not doing the most important thing in the world. Additionally, there is an expectation of a higher standard of learning if the husband is working rather then learning.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that education and work is not the solution for Charedi poverty, because the Charedi lifestyle, specifically large families, is simply incompatible with the modern western economy. The western economy is set up so that salaries can support a family of 4 (2 kids), and even that is difficult these days. Charedim with large families working simply cannot bring in enough money to support the family without additional help.