Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?

November 29, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?


Close friends of mine are raising four young children in a city with an extremely high cost of living. Not a small feat. They are not millionaires, but they are not poor either. Because of the school zone in which they live, they prefer to send their children to a private school, where tuition is upward of $27,000 per year per child. They made the situation work when only two children were of school age, but in the next academic year, there will be three children enrolled, and four not long after.

The friends recently confided that they have applied for need-­based scholarships for the three children, as they believe that their combined income is within the accepted range. I am taken aback. The wife wears the latest fashions and favors expensive jewelry and handbags. They regularly eat at top restaurants and go on costly vacations, and the husband drives a car that is not family-­friendly. I am close enough with the wife to know that she pays retail for all her expensive purchases. In the moment when they confided this, I didn’t know how to respond. So I joked that perhaps the wife shouldn’t take her $7,000 designer bag or wear the shoes and jewelry she had on to the interview. She laughed and said she would ‘‘dress down’’ for the meeting.

I feel that she is taking away a chance for truly needy children and that she just doesn’t want to adjust her lifestyle to accommodate the education preferences she has for her children. These friends are close enough that we have valued honesty in our friendship over the years and are stronger for it. But I also know that personal money matters are extremely sensitive. What should I have said, if anything, instead? Name Withheld

My response: You are asking about what you, an adult, should say to other adults entering into a business deal with other adults who are experienced professionals at what they do? Do you think people haven’t been handling financial aid requests from people who make a lot of money for generations?

You sound like you want to change people who haven’t asked for your advice. I haven’t heard of such attempts leading to desired outcomes often. I wouldn’t do it. If you want to talk to them, I would consider what outcome you want and figure out if you can achieve it, forgetting about shoulds and should nots.

In the meantime, you can probably presume an expensive private school knows how to root out people’s income. It probably would have gone bankrupt otherwise. For all you know, they’re poor compared to other families in the school.

Also in the meantime, you could help them find places to avoid paying retail.

The New York Times response:

I understand your worry. It doesn’t look good to leave your Bentley idling in front of the welfare-­benefits office. The grocery-­store cashier may glower, likewise, when you forage through your Fendi bag for food stamps.

But when costly private schools provide financial aid, it’s up to them to decide how a family’s ability to pay determines what breaks it gets. Are the friends in question planning to fill in the forms truthfully? Then there’s no reason they shouldn’t apply, whatever their quotient of bling. Eligibility requirements, properly designed, don’t shut out poorer families by allowances made to better-­off applicants. (In cases where many or even most parents don’t pay full fees, the sticker price can be thought of as a surcharge on the wealthy.) Besides, with those four children they’re intending to send to private school, I see less Fendi in your friends’ future.

I have been working as a freelance editor for more than 15 years. I have a steady group of local and regional clients, who keep me quite busy with work most of the time, and I make a decent hourly wage for this profession. This year, I began working for an online ‘‘crowdsourcing’’ enterprise that employs hundreds — maybe thousands — of people around the world. Here’s how it works: Once you pass the qualifying tests, you see tasks appear online, and you compete with everyone else to click on a particular task. If you click first, you get to perform the task. Each task pays between 1 cent and several dollars, depending on its complexity and the expertise it requires. I enjoy doing these tasks because they are short and quickly finished, and they offer a change of pace from my other work. Every morning, the company deposits the previous day’s earnings into my PayPal account. I do these tasks during my down time between projects, viewing the money I earn as a supplement. I’ll most likely use this money for holiday shopping.

But the work is irregular. Some days, no tasks appear, and I earn nothing or only a few cents; the most I’ve made in a day is about $50. When I read through this company’s worker forums, I note that for some workers, this is their only source of income, and they are trying to earn enough to pay rent or buy groceries or medicine for their children. So every time I successfully click on a task, especially on those days when the tasks are sparse, am I denying someone the chance to earn money? Is it unethical of me to compete with people for online tasks, knowing that others may need the money more desperately than I do? Barbara Walsh, Madison, Wis.

My response: The first paragraph and first sentence of the second are irrelevant. Your questions apply to any job.

What does it matter what label you attach to your job? The company offering the work thinks it’s ethical. Maybe someone whom you out-click thinks it’s unethical. Everyone has their opinion and no one has the last word right, wrong, good, or bad. You’re just asking someone else’s opinion.

The New York Times response:

It’s thoughtful of you to raise this question. But what would happen if you pulled out of the competition? In some cases, surely, you would be handing the task to someone who needed it less than you. (And we would need some interesting theory to figure out how to measure greater need.) Let’s assume, though, that you would marginally raise the probability that someone who needed the money more would get it. That’s still not a reason to opt out. A well-­designed site will tend to allocate tasks to those who have the strongest desire to do them, because those people are likelier to be hovering over the site to see what turns up. Your opting out isn’t going to have much impact on any one person.

And notice that you don’t ask yourself the same question about your main editing jobs — which are also, in effect, part of the gig economy. You don’t know whether your need for a particular assignment is greater than that of those you compete with, and you’re not obliged to find out. If you suspected that your crowdsourcing enterprise — or the market for freelance editorial jobs — was somehow rigged against the underemployed, you would have a reason to campaign for reform. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Click away!

I was surprised recently when I received an email from a friend (‘‘M.J.’’) at work that came with an attachment of M.J.’s child’s college essay to M.J.’s alma mater. I didn’t know how to respond. I’m pretty sure (based on something said in the email) that the child doesn’t know M.J. sent the essay. I don’t know why my friend sent the essay, other than maybe out of honest pride. No feedback was requested. If the child didn’t know, then, as my daughter pointed out, my reading the essay certainly qualifies as an ethics fail, but at least I didn’t send the thing out.

I sure didn’t show my parents my applications, and my (now-­grown) daughter showed us hers only after printing them out for proofreading purposes. Do PDFs, tweets, emails and electronic applications mean that the ethics of what is assumed private and confidential are somehow more difficult to nail down? This wasn’t as awful as posting the essay on Facebook, but … . Name Withheld

My response: “Qualifies as an ethics fail”? I don’t know who talks that way any more. I don’t understand what you are trying to say. I don’t think you do either.

If the child is younger than eighteen, I wouldn’t be surprised if the parent has the right to send the essay, but I’m not a lawyer. If you think the parent violated copyright laws, talk to a lawyer. Copyright law evolved, in part, for cases like this, so people can protect their work, so you don’t have to figure things out legally here. You can talk to a lawyer to understand the legal picture.

If you think the parent is being a bad parent, independent of copyright law, violating privacy and confidentiality, however legally, good luck telling a parent how to be a better parent. As unsuccessful as I’ve found trying to change people who haven’t asked for your help, I’ve found it less successful when telling a parent how to be a better parent.

You can always talk to the person to understand the situation more without judging or advising. You’ll probably learn more that way than by writing the New York Times.

Otherwise, if you want to advise people in relationships you hardly know anything about, good luck meddling, meddler!

The New York Times response:

A proud parent shows a friend the child’s handiwork. What could be more commonplace? You suspect that M.J. may have been violating the privacy of his or her child. I wonder. Your conclusion depends a good deal on the nature of their relationship. Absent any reason to think that M.J. wasn’t entitled to share the essay, you did nothing wrong in reading it. Even if M.J.’s child hadn’t been asked, I don’t know that it was all that serious an offense. No doubt circulating stuff that makes family members look good can embarrass them. But at least in my family, it’s mostly fast forgiven. If kvelling were a crime, most parents would be in the hoosegow.

Still, the general issue you raise is a good one. The ease of hitting the forwarding button means that people are distributing all kinds of things without reflecting about whether they’re violating the privacy of others or failing obligations of confidentiality. Think before you send.

The New York Times recently exposed the systematic abuse of workers at nail salons. What is an ethical person who also likes a good mani-­pedi to do? I thought I could just tip big, but how do I know if the workers are allowed to keep their tips? If we all boycott, they eventually lose their jobs, such as they are. If I try to ask on the side whether they are being treated well, I risk getting them in trouble. What do you suggest? B.L., Connecticut

My response: Finally, an interesting question not about moralizing, asking to label, or asking to be told what to do. I wish this column would pick more letters like this.

What I would suggest stems from seeing this issue generally: if an industry is systemically corrupt, or systemically hurts people, how can someone interact with it without contributing to the corruption or pain? If you do nothing you feel complicit. To do anything may require more effort than you have resources to meaningfully change.

I suggest keeping in mind that if you had to fix everything everywhere before doing anything, you wouldn’t be able to do anything. I recommend figuring out how much time and other resources you have to work on problems like this. Then think of how and where you could apply those resources for maximum effect, accepting that what you can’t work on after you’ve done the most you’re willing to devote, and that you can never solve everything.

In the meantime, if you still have trouble accepting this perspective, I recommend learning to manage your emotions, which takes no outside resources and helps you in many areas.

The New York Times response:

Given your concerns, I wouldn’t rule out talking to your manicurist, discreetly. And you could increase the odds that your tip goes to its intended recipient by giving it directly to the worker — not tipping via your credit card or even via an envelope slipped into a central box. A large-­enough tip could ensure that the person who did your mani-­pedi was properly paid at least for the hour she was with you. A real solution, though, is to support politicians who will work to secure not just a reasonable minimum hourly wage for all who work in our communities but also a proper enforcement of labor laws.

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1 response to “Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?

  1. Pingback: The Ethicist: Should Kids Whose Parents Could Earn Higher Salaries Get Financial Aid? | Joshua Spodek

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