“What’s he worth?” How many times has this question passed your mind when speaking to someone? Have you ever asked this question to someone point blank?
Well, there are certainly people out there who are interested in knowing about your worth. For example, the government is interested when trying to determine your taxes or Medicaid eligibility. Fundraisers for charitable institutions would love to know how much they can ‘hit’ you for. Oh, and yeshiva administrators are dying to know how much tuition they can expect from you as well.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Parents in our community are now busy completing their registration packets for their children’s upcoming school year. In it, there is sure to be some information about tuition. In fact, this year numerous schools in our community updated their tuition negotiation process. Unlike in the past where parents would meet with the school administrator to have a face to face meeting about the monetary issues, this year parents are being directed to a ‘third party’ online website where the most detailed financial information conceivable needs to be disclosed and the most private financial documents provided (tax documents, credit reports etc.).
I can see why it is in the schools’ interest to implement this new screening system. Firstly, this saves the administrator time since time-consuming meetings with parents are now mostly eliminated. Secondly, as this third party company ‘verifies’ the submitted numbers with tax and credit agencies the numbers are seemingly more truthful. Thirdly, the school can now place the blame squarely on the unnamed ‘third party’ when tuition reductions are declined. No longer can the administrator be called the ‘Rasha’.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt that yeshivas offer our children an indispensable service and need money to function. There is also no doubt that those who can afford to pay substantial tuition should pay. The point of what follows is the questionable process of judging peoples’ financial situations in general. To be clear, this article is not specifically pointed towards school administrators (although, as this is on peoples’ minds these days, they are being used as an example); rather, it should hopefully be an eye opener to all those who assume they have figured out someone else’s financial situation or “worth”.
A Tale of Three Paupers
Imagine the following scenario:
Three people are waiting outside the school administrator’s office each holding their respective tax returns: Nosson Ha’Nebach, Boruch Ha’Batlan, and Kalman Ha’Ksil (-names have been changed to protect their true identities). Each enters the office separately and declares poverty. Each of their tax returns shows only $15,000 of income for the past year and they each have four children!
The administrator understandably agrees that they can’t pay much tuition and comes up with some relatively low amount (-which, for these paupers, is still a substantial sum).
Ah, but there’s more to know about these three poor men! Here’s their story:
Nosson Ha’Nebach is a sad case indeed. This man lost his job nearly a year ago and has been searching for a new job ever since. Not a day goes by without him reading the classifieds, sending his resume to employers, and scheduling interviews. Every night he goes to sleep worried about his family’s future. His self-esteem is shattered and he confides his broken feelings in his wife. And, when he’s out of options, there’s always a tehillim nearby. To survive this difficult period, Nosson applied for Medicaid and foodstamps but hopes this assistance will only be needed temporarily.
Boruch Ha’Batlan is a different story altogether. This guy never had a job nor is he interested in one. Having a job would mean needing to get up before 10 am every day! It would mean having more responsibility in life than he is interested in. It would also mean that he would be like those other ‘losers’ who slave away yet live the same way he does. You see, Boruch has it all figured out. He has been living in a ‘Section 8’ apartment for years, has Medicaid, foodstamps, HEAP, and WIC for the family. Oh, he even gets free cell phones and air conditioners every year! On top of it all, he knows he’ll get all sorts of free food before every yom tov (-these magic trucks show up loaded with goodies!-) and that the yeshivas and other institutions will give him all kinds of breaks because he is destitute. Whoever said America is not the land of the free (stuff)!
Kalman Ha’Ksil. Wow, this one is something else. Kalman is just like Boruch. He also gets all of the benefits, including Section 8. But there’s a dark secret. Kalman actually is a very capable and proactive guy. He has a full time job and earns $75,000 a year. In cash. Shh, this is his little secret that he is hiding from the IRS, the school administrator, and from everyone else. No one even knows about the property he recently purchased (with cash – under a relative’s name) and now rents out to tenants. This, while living in his three bedroom Section 8 apartment!
Knowing these backgrounds, please, pray tell me, how would or could a school administrator or some third party software possibly be able to determine each of their circumstances? Aren’t these three individuals three entirely different situations?? While on paper these people are no different, in reality these people are worlds apart.
And this hypothetical situation does not take into account the myriads of other personal circumstances and variables that would need to be taken into account before determining what each person is really “worth”.
So, I ask you, who’s to judge?
The Poor Rich Man
Did I mention that there was a fourth person also waiting in the administrator’s office? Indeed, Gavriel Ha’Gvir is sitting there too holding his tax return that shows $100,000 of income for the year. A six figure salary! The administrator or ‘third party’ takes one look at that number and suggests that he should pay nearly the full tuition.
Little does the administrator or ‘third party’ know of this person’s circumstance:
Gavriel Ha’Gvir actually earns $65,000 per year working 9 am – 5 pm every workday (there is also a 45 minute commute). His wife also works part time and earns $25,000. In addition, Gavriel has a Sunday job, to bring in some extra money for the family’s needs, from which he earns another $10,000. This brings him to the $100,000 total.
Gavriel wishes he can spend Sundays with his kids, but he thanks Hashem every day that he at least has a parnassa in these tough times. This, after having invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of stressful hours over the past three years when he was acquiring marketable skills while studying in an intensive training school.
But wait! Does Gavriel get to keep the $100,000 amount that is listed on his tax return? Oh no! That is the gross amount of his earnings. 7.65% ($7,650) is removed for payroll taxes. Another approximately 35% ($35,000) from the gross is removed for federal and state income taxes. Now he just has $57,350 of net pay.
Being a good Jew, Gavriel gives 10% maser from this net amount ($5,735) to his poor relative (Boruch Ha’Batlan perhaps?) leaving him with $51,615. From this, he must pay for his family’s medical insurance (around $15,000) and, of course, pay rent at around $2,000 per month ($24,000). Now he has $12,615 to spend on food (around $10,000 per year at $175 per week plus yomim tovim) and utilities (phones, electric, and gas around $2,500).
Poor Gavriel Ha’Gvir just has $115 left to spend on everything else (clothes, insurance, transportation etc. etc.)! Did I mention that Gavrielalso has four kids? And that the administrator wants him to pay nearly full tuition. From where, pray tell me, from where?!
Up is Down and Down is Up
Back to our friend Boruch Ha’Batlan, the lazy pauper who only earned $15,000. This guy would not pay any federal or state income tax because he earned so little. In addition, he would get around a $4,000 ‘earned income credit’ and an additional $1,000 for the child tax credit! (This guy loves filing his taxes each year!)
So, his $15,000 of income turned into $20,000 after the tax credits. Plus, he gets free medical insurance (a $15,000 value) and Section 8 (around a $20,000 value) in addition to foodstamps (at $400 per month, a $4,800 value), not to mention the other perks (WIC, HEAP, air conditioners etc). In addition, he sends his child to the Bais Rivka Head Start program (a $5,000 value).
Without lifting a finger or making any attempt to find a job (or to wake up before 10 am), Reb Boruch raked in a value of $65,000, none of which is taxable!!
So who gets the last laugh, Boruch Ha’Batlan or Gavriel Ha’Gvir?
I don’t believe there are any chiddushim here. We all understand that every person’s situation is entirely unique. And this is precisely the point: By just looking at numbers on paper one can never capture the finer factors that make everyone’s circumstance unique. Some unknown ‘third party’ website cannot possibly discern Nosson’s tears from Boruch’s laziness nor distinguish Kalman’s evasions or Gavriel’s labor.
Perhaps what this takes is face to face, honest meetings between parents and school administrators. The intuitive administrator should be able to gather more understanding from the parent’s face than from the face of tax documents.
And, from their end, parents need to realize and recognize the incredible value of the service our schools are providing our children with and be totally honest about what we can afford to contribute.
The tuition problem has been around for years and will probably not go away anytime soon. Parents will still struggle to pay their tuition and schools will struggle to pay their bills as well. However, when trying to determine peoples’ worth, I ask, “Who’s to judge?”
“Don’t judge your fellowman until you are in his place.” (Pirkei Avos 2:4)