At the Register in the Shoe Store

Trying her best to entertain her large brood as they wait impatiently for hours in the crowded shoe store, the valiant mother tries her hardest to remain calm and collected. At last their turn arrives and the harried worker, who is serving several customers simultaneously, brings out box after box of shoes in various styles and sizes. Another hour passes before each of her children has been fitted with both weekday and Shabbos shoes. Relieved that the shopping excursion was successful, she walks over to the counter, little ones in tow, to pay.

The man at the register scans each of the boxes. When he informs the mother of the total, she gasps.

Throughout the selection process, she had inquired about prices and repeatedly chosen the lowest-marked pairs, while trying her best to convince her children that they were just as nice and “in” as the more expensive footwear. But now that she heard the total cost, she realizes that no matter how hard she tried to be frugal, the cost of shoes is still — in her eyes — astronomical.

The mother anxiously opens her checkbook and, as a line begins to form behind her and her youngest tugs at her sleeve, begins calculating. There were still so many other purchases to make before Yom Tov, and the amount left in their bank account was already dangerously low. As the man at the register urges her to hurry, it is with a pang in her heart that she reaches for her credit card. For the last few months they have been only able to afford the minimum payment, and the amount they now owe, including the agonizingly high interest payments, is growing at a frightening rate.

My husband, baruch Hashem, has a full-time job, and I work at a relatively well-paying part-time job as well, the mother thinks as she walks out of the store clutching the bags with their purchases. Why can’t we make ends meet?

The aforementioned scene — or others similar to it — gets repeated on a daily basis in stores throughout our community. In a letter to the editor about this topic, a reader shared his personal experience: “Everyone knows that Pesach-related expenses are exorbitant, but I find that between the beginning of the school year and the Yom Tov Sukkos, this time of the year is even more challenging. We barely scrape by the whole year, and the summer camp expenses always set us back considerably. My wife and I both work very hard, and we really try to stick only to the basics. But these basics — shoes, Yom Tov clothing for the kids, uniforms for the girls and weekday clothing for the boys, registration fees at the schools and yeshivos — add up to huge amounts. Then there are the groceries, the fish and meats for the Yom Tov meals, the arbaah minim, and the new panels for the sukkah to replace those that got ruined…”

A combination of numerous factors — including the fact that a stunningly high percentage of incomes goes to pay the rent or the mortgage as well as tuition — are translating into more and more families where both parents work at respectable jobs, earn an acceptable salary, live a relatively simple lifestyle, and yet are unable to get through this time of year without racking up considerable debt.

A generation ago, many families managed to put away enough money for sizable savings accounts with which to help marry off their children as well as a nest egg for retirement. Nowadays, far too many hardworking families are already in debt even before their oldest reaches the age of shidduchim. Their income may sound reasonable, but their take-home pay, after taxes, just doesn’t cover their real-life expenses.

The first step towards dealing with this very real crisis is recognizing that it exists. As a community and as individuals, we must broaden our definition of those in need. While we must continue to worry about the unemployed and the single-parent homes, we must also turn our attention to our family members, neighbors and friends who may seem like a typical middle-income family but are in reality part of an ever growing “working poor” segment of the population.

In many cases, these families would be mortified to accept donations from a tzedakah fund, but would accept a cash gift from a close family member, and certainly would not object if their outstanding balance at the grocery was paid off by an anonymous benefactor.

As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — and, immediately thereafter, the Yom Tov of Sukkos — rapidly approach, we turn to our readers for their thoughts and practical ideas on how to help the crisis of the working poor. B’ezras Hashem we will publish your suggestions in an upcoming issue.