Monday, March 07, 2011

On Jewish Economics, Schools... and Unions?

In the Orthodox Jewish universe, unions are rarely mentioned or discussed; after all, the typical professions that Orthodox Jews enter are professions which don't typically have unions. But a recent article on unions immediately brought to mind the Jewish community and how it approaches its own economic situation, and what steps seem to be needed to revitalize the community and place it in a much better situation for the long term.

The article discusses why unions are suddenly having a much more difficult time raising the support they've been accustomed to in the past, and concludes that it is the access people have to the actual numbers and deficits that states face that are forcing them to conclude that what unions are demanding is unfair and undeserving of their support. Earlier today, I was interviewed via phone by a Jewish magazine regarding how to educate our young about personal finances, and a large portion of the conversation centered around the Jewish Economics Survey. During the interview, I discussed how one of the most important features of the JES (and in actuality, the key to the success of Mint.com) was how it simply forces awareness: When your numbers are staring you in the face, it's much more difficult to ignore them.

One of the most interesting anecdotes that comes to mind is a young father who was discussing how having all of their numbers in front of them was so sobering, it completely cut out his (financial) arguments with his wife. There was no longer any finger-pointing or claims about who spent on what - it was all there in front of them, and all that mattered now was "Wow, we need to fix this." As a community, we need to do the same type of fix, but it requires a new level of transparency and a dedication among the community to do its best to work with one another. We need to see the numbers of our shuls, schools, and organizations to understand just what the issues are and how bad they have become, and they will likely need to see ours as well.

A few years ago R' Hayyim Schwartz of Chofetz Chaim was one of the speakers at a symposium on tuition at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. One of the most striking points he made (if I am recalling correctly) was that the economic situation and layoffs had resulted in the reduction or elimination of about ten-fifteen (of about 80?) students' tuition payments - they simply could not pay due to layoffs and other tragedies. This sounds quite bad, but even worse when you extrapolate that type of impact to a hypothetical larger school.

Imagine a school of about 400 students, where tuition is $10,000 annually. If the average family ends up paying about $8,000 per student due to financial and other scholarships, the school will typically have $3.2 million in tuition payments per year, of which they probably would collect almost all (since the tuition being paid is after negotiations). But with a sharp economic downturn, this number could drop anywhere from 10-20%, and suddenly the school is short not just the original scholarship amounts, but another $320,000-640,000 - literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's simply too much of an impact for a school to bear, and delayed payments from other parents can turn this into an impossible cash flow problem before a school can even begin working on a solution.

It seems today that it is clear to all that we need to fix the issues that currently face our schools, shuls, and organizations. A prerequisite to this, however, is that as individuals we must get ourselves in order, or the schools will feel compelled to force it on parents - and some are already pushing for this with some very cogent arguments: That camps [discussed a lot recently], vacations, luxury cars, unnecessarily large houses, or the like that cause people to not have enough for tuition places an unfair burden on those who do not purchase those and/or causes tuition prices to rise unfairly on everyone.

We must all first put our own finances in order if we are to solve the crises that face our community. To that end, I plan on putting out a Jewish Economics Survey v2.0 in the near future; if you have not taken the first version previously, please do so! Then, give as much feedback as possible so that the next version can be as strong as possible. I am looking to improve numerous aspects of the survey and in particular to create a better way to splice, drill-down, and share the various data with the Orthodox community as a whole. Certainly much of the information gleaned in the first version was eye-opening and useful, but it certainly had its flaws (particularly as it was originally designed as a simple questionnaire for some friends), and some of the answers were not clean enough to get a clear picture from.

Finally, if you or someone you know would be willing to assist in the second version of the JES, please let me know. In particular, the project could use people who have strong backgrounds in:
  • Financial Planning
  • Survey Creation
  • Statistical Analysis (Groovin'?)
  • Web design
  • Programming
If you are interested, please e-mail me at JEconomicS at G mail.com (no space after G) with the subject Offering to Help. Thank you very much!

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