Friday, June 5th, 2009
As summer arrives, young people dream of adventure, thoughts of cruises and road trips and theme parks dancing in their heads.
For all too many these days, dreaming and thoughts are all they’re going to get.
Among the fondest memories of my childhood are driving down the East Coast to Florida in my father’s big Chevy Impala (the minivan of its time), stopping at almost every point of interest in between; driving up north to Toronto and Montreal, several trips to Israel and one out west to California, Arizona and Nevada.
By the time I was a teenager I had been to both Disneys, seen the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Niagara Falls, toured Washington DC and knew my way around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Ours was not a rich family. Both my parents were civil servants, and we lived in apartments. We had a comfortable middle class life, with all the conveniences of the time.
But to me, the vacations were the best perk of middle class life. Growing up in a loud, busy Brooklyn neighborhood, it was surreal to see America’s splendor unfold through the windows of the car, or to span the continent, or half the world, on a jet.
Those were the days.
In 2009, for thousands of middle-class families whose kids are in yeshiva, the amount of travel they’ve been able to enjoy is severely curtailed. For those who can pay the full tuition bill, there’s precious little disposable income left for a recreation budget. And if circumstances require you to ask for a scholarship, don’t even think about anything more than a night at the movies, and you are required to feel guilty about that.
After submitting your tax return, car registrations and credit report, tuition assistance applicants are routinely asked about their recent vacation activity.
This is a reasonable question. A family that spent Passover in the Bahamas and winter vacation at a ski resort and asks for a scholarship has its priorities wrong.
But it must be considered that some reasonable form of family vacation should not be held against such families, or viewed as a luxury rather than the important bonding experience that it is.
Despite the stereotypical back-seat bickering, whines of “are we there yet?” and parental threats to pull over or turn back home, what’s more important for a family’s functionality than sharing new experiences and building memories?
So far, my kids’ vacation experience has been limited to one trip to Florida, their first and only time on a plane, a few car trips, and our annual bungalow colony summers. I will never take for granted that this is more than many people have, but the fact that it’s far less than I had as a kid is sad.
My parents were no wealthier than my wife and I, but three factors gave them more discretionary income. They paid no mortgage during those early years. They had one less child. And although my brother and I went to yeshiva, they paid far less, even in dollars adjusted for inflation, than almost anyone today pays for the same tuition (about $45 a month per child.)
If tuition had risen about the same as the cost of living and the average increase in earnings, the current generation of middle class tuition-paying families would not be in the sad position of giving their kids less than they had.
But with an increase now estimated at 7 percent a year, and most families lucky to make the same this year as last, a large share of us will miss out on those cherished memories of experiencing new horizons together. And we will be poorer for it.