New lessons in economics
As Russian students head back to school, the country’s continued economic downturn and decline in real income is forcing some parents to make difficult decisions about educational expenses.
Victoria, a single mother of a 13-year-old son, used to make enough money to live comfortably in Moscow and also take a nice vacation every year. Today, however, due to the fall in the value of the ruble, her salary is the equivalent of $920 a month.
This year, she spent 20,000 rubles ($300) on her son’s back-to-school expenses. Most Russian schools require uniforms, which can cost between 2,500 and 6,000 rubles ($38-$92). Students must also have uniforms for P.E., shoes to wear inside the school building (as Russian schoolchildren must leave shoes worn outside on the streets in the coatroom), and pens, notebooks and workbooks.
Victoria says the school expenses have forced her to cut back on the kinds of food she buys.
“Sometimes, I even deny my son his favorite grapes. Previously, I bought them all the time, just like cucumbers and peppers, but they have become much more expensive,” said Victoria, adding that she has started to put more of her food purchases on her credit card.
Parents estimate that the cost of school supplies has risen on average by 15 percent compared to last year. Meanwhile, the real wages of Russians declined by 9.3 percent in the first half of 2015, according to figures from the Russian State Statistics Service, Rosstat.
News agency TASS reports that parents living in the Central Federal District, which includes Moscow and the surrounding regions, will spend the most on back-to-school purchases — 25,000-27,000 ($380-$414) rubles on average.
In the Volga Federal District, which includes Russia’s third-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, prices are lower. In the Nizhny Novgorod region, parents spend on average 10,000 rubles ($153). The average salary in the region is also lower, however — 27,000 rubles. Costs are also high in Russia’s Far East. In the Khabarovsk Territory, for example, parents will spend 20,000-25,000 rubles, out of an average salary of 36,500 rubles ($560).
Big family, big expenses
Costs just go up for parents with several children, even if not all of them are in school. Last year, Muscovites Irina and Pavel had a third child. Although only their oldest son goes to school, education-related expenses take a major chunk from their income, which is about 40,000 rubles ($670) per month.
“The prices of some items have almost doubled,” said Irina. “His backpack is already three years old, but we have to postpone the purchase of a new one, to wait for discounts. My son is neat, it is the only thing that saves us.”
And the situation is even more difficult for needy families — the number of which has increased significantly with the financial crisis.
The number of Russians living below the poverty level (9,700 rubles or $150) has reached 22 million, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told the Interfax news agency in July.
Regional authorities are trying to help the poorest citizens to prepare children for school with lump-sum payments at the beginning of the school year; the amount varies depending on the region.
Volunteers also help poor families and families with several children get their kids ready for school. In the town of Smolensk in western Russia, a local priest put a notice on online forums asking for people to contribute money to help needy families or donate school supplies.
“People donate less than last year, but still continue to help – both retired women and even school students bring donations,” said Natalia Popova, the officer-in-charge of the church’s social service and charity department.
“Now the times are difficult, many hearts have hardened, but we went through a lot and will endure this, too.”