Many families face a crushing parnassah burden. The income of a median household in the USA is about $75,000, yet in the NY metro area, where many frum Jews live, it’s around $80,000. These numbers are well below the very basic cost of living for the average frum family: it’s been estimated that the average income needed for the average frum family to live comfortably is between $150,000 and $350,000! The concept of a frum man who works three jobs to bring home $100,000, yet is barely surviving, is far from an anomaly in our society.
Why does it take an income two to four times larger than the average to keep a frum family going?
Cost Drivers for the Frum Community
- Family size: The average American family has 3.13 people. Even Utah, a state known for “large” families, averages just 3.5 people per family. Contrast that with frum families, where it’s not uncommon to have eight to 15 people living under the same roof—two parents and a brood of financially dependent kids. Even without unique “Jewish” expenses, simple math shows that frum families need much higher incomes to survive.
- Tuition: I suspect most frum Jews would feel rich if they didn’t have to pay tuition. Whereas 90% of Americans utilize the free public school system (free to parents at least, not taxpayers), frum families can easily be spending $25,000–$100,000 annually on yeshivah tuition. Full tuition ranges from about $6,000–$25,000; even after discounts are applied for those eligible, the cost of providing our children with 12–15 years of yeshivah education is astronomical.
- Simchos: The financial burden of a bris or kiddush ($2,000–$6,000) and then a bar mitzvah ($8,000–$20,000) pales in comparison to the enormous obligations that arise from the happy occasion of a child’s marriage. The costs of the simcha seem endless—l’chaim, vort, gifts, setting a new household, gowns, aufruf, chasunah, sheva brachos, and more will easily set the mechutanim back a combined $40,000–$150,000! Non-Jewish weddings are not cheap either, (estimated at $20,000-$30,000 average), but it’s very common that the couple pays for almost half the cost themselves. More importantly, the average American parent will marry off just one or two children, whereas frum parents will often marry off four to eight plus.
- Kollel support: In chareidi circles, parents providing financial support to newlywed Kollel couples is the norm. Anecdotally, I estimate this assistance at $12,000–$30,000 annually for up to five years plus. While many American parents help their adult children too, the sums given are usually small—though they have been increasing over time. And again, the average American is supporting far fewer children than the frum community.
- Miscellaneous: Being frum also means paying for kosher food, tznius wardrobes, sheitels, Yamim Tovim costs, tzedakah obligations (to yeshivos, shuls, local chessed organizations, etc.), shul membership, camp, etc. There is a lot of variability in this category. But although one has more control and discretion over how much to spend, no matter how you slice it, there are a lot of miscellaneous frum expenses.
- “Kosher” real estate: Practically speaking, most frum communities are in expensive areas. While living “out of town” is an option, moving means leaving behind one’s social network of family and friends, a high price to pay. Also, there’s a chicken-and-egg situation in which many people have to live in expensive cities to maximize their incomes which they need to pay for their very high cost of living.
- Keeping up with the Cohens: Especially because the frum community is so tight-knit, there is tremendous social pressure to look right, dress right, celebrate right, educate right, etc. As the frum community becomes more affluent, “right” often means more and more expensive. If we were purely logical beings we would spend based on our needs and incomes, but as we are humans, much of our “needs” are relative. We have a need to fit in with our family, friends, and neighbors. Even if parents are willing to swim against the tide, it’s much harder, and perhaps unfair, to insist that children do. So we pay.
So How Do We Do It?
- Working like crazy: As the abovementioned article explains, this takes a huge emotional, physical, and mental toll on the entire family.
- Widespread tzedakah: To their tremendous credit, the wealthier members of the community are extremely generous with their money and time, keeping the yeshivos and chessed organizations funded. But the fundraising always seems to pale in comparison to the needs. Besides, it is far from ideal that a large percentage of the community requires handouts. It seems we are doing something wrong.
- Government programs: Whoever needs and is eligible for government assistance should take it, but this is also a Band-Aid on a wound. Widespread reliance on social assistance creates many problems including people becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty, temptation to cheat the system, and anti-Semitism.
- Crushing debt: Those who aren’t making it may maintain a facade of success through borrowing via home mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and gemachs. Borrowing often takes on a life of its own as people start juggling debt from card to card and gemach to gemach, never getting ahead or, too often, falling even further behind as interest compounds.
With both parents working and juggling multiple jobs, most frum families do manage to eke out a living. But the herculean effort that is necessary to earn/borrow/beg for amounts equaling double, triple, or quadruple the median US family income is draining the frum community.
Through it all, it’s important to remember the One who is really supporting us through it all.