Thursday, August 25, 2011

Handouts, the Poor and the Welfare State, Wrong and Right

 Cartoon by Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper:
Reprinted with permission
Last Friday I listened to one of Australia’s most passionate advocates for Indigenous employment as well as one of its richest men issue a heartfelt plea against welfare. Andrew, “Twiggy” Forest[1], asserted that the dead hand of welfare is killing Aboriginal people, preventing them from getting jobs and leading them into a downward spiral of Alcohol abuse, disease and death. In the US and elsewhere, the Tea party are screaming for cuts in government spending which must include  welfare, with the support of some very religious people.

This week Jews read the following passage, “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities…you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking[2]”. Does this only apply to private giving? What is right?

Three arguments against handouts
There are three main arguments made against a government administered welfare system. 1) It harms those it seeks to help. It fosters dependence, is a disincentive to work and perpetuates disadvantage and social problems. 2) Charity should be done by individuals and community. They do it better and the community solidarity factor is removed if government takes over this function. 3) A questioning of the morality of redistributing wealth from its rightful owners to others.

Danger to life and other harmful effects
“Do not stand on your brothers blood![3]”, is a prohibition against allowing people to be harmed or die a preventable death. On the one hand we are warned to be more careful with charity then all other commandments because it is possible that by withholding it is tantamount to shedding blood with the death of the poor person[4] out of starvation. On the other hand, Forest talks about his Indigenous friends who are now deceased and puts it down to Welfare. Only 25% of Aboriginal Australians will live past the age of 65[5].

The view that Welfare is part of the problem has also been expressed by some Indigenous leaders.  Already in the Talmud it states that idleness leads to madness[6]. I don’t have the expertise for certainty about the dangers that welfare poses to its variety of recipients all around the world. Still, the harm caused to poor people themselves around the world by Welfare is a serious moral issue and the evidence must be honestly confronted.

Encouraging giving but not taking
Alongside the great value placed on giving, there is a strong message against taking unless it is absolutely necessary. “Whoever does not need to take [charity] and yet takes, will not depart from this world before being actually in need of his fellow-men; but he who needs to take and does not take, will not die before he will have come in old age to support others from his own [bounty][7].

This is also seen in the teaching Make your Shabbat like a weekday and do not require [the help] of others[8]". Despite the importance of honouring the Shabbat with a beautiful meal, this requirement is less important than self sufficiency. We are taught that one should seek work even if it is to “flay carcasses in the market place (considered shameful work) and earn wages and do not say, 'I am a priest and a great man and it is beneath my dignity[9]”.

Self sufficiency and the 20 Shekel wedding
In a modern context the following harsh advice is offered to low income families. Responding to the question: If someone does not have money for a wedding, should he collect donations? Rabbi Aviner answers with an emphatic No. “Collecting donations is only legitimate for essential needs like food or medicine, a person needs to get married but he does not have to make a fancy wedding if he does not have the money to do so. I have friends who do not have a lot of money: one made a wedding in a nice outside area and brought sandwiches. The entire wedding cost 50 shekels. Another friend invited ten of us to the building of the Rabbinate which has a small hall. We drank coke, ate some cake, and the entire wedding cost 20 shekels. If a person wants to live with extras it is a personal decision, but living with extras with other people's money is unheard of[10].

To the degree that this Torah advice is followed the danger of falling into the welfare trap is somewhat diminished. (Yet, I think the ideal of self sufficiency is battling with a sense of entitlement among some people. I thank God I have not walked in their shoes and so I withhold judgement).

Structural difference between communal and state based welfare
Some have argued that Judaism strongly supports the essential elements of the welfare state[11]. An alternative argument is that community based giving in Judaism has two distinct dimensions and this two tier system addresses some of the problems associated with Welfare[12].

The communal system that collects communal funds is mainly focused on meeting basic needs such as food. "Every Jewish community is obliged to appoint charity administrators, respected and reliable individuals who will collect from each person what he is fit to contribute… and give to each poor person enough for his needs for the week.[13]"

More substantial support, it is argued, was more dependent on donor good will. This second form of support is related to the  words “sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking[14] and encourages more generous assistance that could go so far as to replace whatever he is missing from what he was used to. Eg. “if he was accustomed to riding a horse and have a slave running ahead of him when he used to be rich and then he became poor[15], one should buy a horse for him and a slave[16].

What emerges for the recipient is a very basic safety net provided by the community that is not likely to prevent anyone from seeking work. There is the possibility of having more substantial needs met but this is less certain and cannot be counted on like a welfare check. There is also the recognition that one is being supported by real people in one’s own community not the nameless, faceless government[17].  

The highest form of giving
In Australia and focusing on Aboriginal people, Mr. Forest has undertaken an ambitious project to get commitments from businesses to provide jobs for Aboriginal people and to drive a campaign to train people for these specific jobs Of course this approach fits well with a Jewish ideal as articulated by Maimonedes.

 There are eight levels of charity, one greater than the next. The highest level which has none above it is to strengthen a Jew's hand and to give him a gift or loan or to partner with him or to find him some work such that his hand is strengthened to the point where he does not need to ask other people”[18].

Job, career, ownership
It was interesting to note a progression in thinking at the forum last Friday, with Mr. Forest talking jobs, Danny Lester his Aboriginal CEO for the project talking about careers rather than jobs and making it clear he had greater ambitious for Aboriginal people than simply a job. Some in the Audience took it further and envisioned Aboriginal enterprise and business ownership. It is this third option that seems the highest expression of Maimonedes’ teaching and consistent with his statements about loans and partnership.

Whose money is it?! You communist, you!
Getting the poor into business ownership is a great ideal but that does not mean that Judaism would simply embrace capitalism and leave it to the market, dismissing all ideas of equality of outcome. The Jew is warned not to think “how can I diminish my money to give it to the poor” because the money is not his it is only given as a deposit to do the will of the depositor (God) to give it to the poor[19].  

The Jubilee concept meant that every fifty years, the Jewish people did the equivalent of turning over the monopoly game board of life and redistributed all farmland on a somewhat equal basis with all lands returning to the original owners. Loans were cancelled every seventh year. Slaves were freed after six years and sent away with generous gifts[20]. In what could be an admonition to employers in our times the Torah makes clear, “You shall not be troubled when you send him free from you, for twice as much as a hired servant, he has served you six years, and the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you shall do[21]”.

Implications for the welfare state?
I am not a fan of the status quo and welfare dependency.  I support a fearless examination of every aspect of our response to poverty and timely courageous change based on our sincere efforts to find the truth. The reform process and review must consider the dangers of both too much welfare and of substantially abandoning welfare in favour of a Torah inspired public policy based on a divided public-private sharing of welfare responsibility and getting people on their feet ideal. There is a real danger that the private sector will not meet its obligations across the board and that poor people will not in the end get jobs and will be left in dire circumstances.

There are no easy answers. Those of us who have must do what we can to provide a hand up or a hand out depending on the situation, potential harm and the need.

[1] Disclosure: Mr. Forest has donated funds to an organisation I lead, Together For Humanity Foundation.
[2] Deuteronomy 15:7-8
[3] Leviticus 19:16
[4] Tur Shulchan Aruch 247
[6] Talmud Ketubot 59b, see Rashi
[7] Mishnah,  Pe'ah 8:9
[8] Talmud, Shabbat 118a
[9] Talmud Pesachim 113a
[10] Aviner, R, Shlomo,
[11] Tamari, Dr. M, The Challenge of Wealth, Parshas Ki Savo
[12] Meir, Rabbi Dr. A., Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, 
[13] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 256:1
[14] Deuteronomy 15:7-8
[15] Talmud, Ketuvot 67b
[16] Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 250:1, this interpretation of the difference between the basic charity described in 256 and 250 is pur forward by Rabbi Dr. Meir, and fits the general context. I have not delved deeply into all the original sources but the Rema’s comment suggest that 250 is also talking about the communal charity distribution rather than the individual who could not be expected to take on such a difficult responsibiltiy. On the other hand the Taz quotes a wealth of sources and views, including Rosh, Rambam and Tur, some of which supports Rabbi Meir’s interpretation. 
[17] Tamari, Dr. M, ibid
[18] Maimonedes, Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Gifts of the Poor 10:7
[19] Tur Shulchan Aruch 247
[20] Deuteronomy 15:14
[21] Deuteronomy 15:18


  1. Amazing insight dear Reb. Islamically, it is very similar to all you have mentioned (oy, if I had time to do a parallel post!). There is even a hadith that a poor man was begging/asking during the Prophet Muhammmad (saw) time. The Prophet (saw) asked the man what he owned. The man responded that he had nothing but a cup. The Prophet Muhammmad (saw) told the man to sell his cup! Indeed, cultural/institutional dependency on charity/handouts leads to a breakdown in dignity as you have described. Witness what has happened to the Native peoples of Alaska. Alaska is such a rich state. Surely, the government could institute job training programs in the energy industry for the people. But, no. Sadly, the "other" is brought in to do the jobs. In America, it happens among the Native peoples on "reservations." High degrees of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, incest, and other crimes against humanity.

  2. Thanks Safiyyah. Interesting story about the cup. I hope Native people will manage to turn the tide and outsiders will be useful in their efforts to support them rather than making it worse.

  3. Marc Springer/Abu SinanAugust 26, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    I am in agreement. I have worked two jobs for 7 years plus and am now going back to school for 2 classes this semester, maybe three next semester. I have a REAL hard time with thise who refuse to work for a living or those who refuse to work hard for it. Sure, I could quit my jobs, work at a 7-11 and go on state aid. I'd probably end with more money in my pocket at the end of month. I also think it was would be a massive waste of the intelligence G*d gave me.

    So I dont want hand outs and I think my record proves it. I do have a 6 year old son I would love to get ABA therapy for. Our insurance doesnt cover it and at some $3,000 a month, if we paid for it, we cannot afford it. I think if LESS money was paid out to those who dont deserve it there would be MORE resources out there for people and families who honestly need it.

  4. Marc/Abu. Thanks for sharing. The ethical element is important. At the same time, I think our willingness to work hard is also a gift from our parents and circumstances. Others are dealing with a different set of circumstances which makes it harder for them to embrace the moral stance you and others have taken.

  5. Zalman, I think there's some confusion here. State welfare per se and welfare dependency among Aboriginal people. The main problem for Aboriginal communities, as I see it (besides the historical destruction of their culture and livelihood), is their isolation and lack of job opportunities. Therefore, the push to remedy that is admirable and long overdue. It's what Noel Pearson and others have been advocating. There are, as far as I am aware, Aboriginal communities that were doing very well, before the intervention.

    The usefulness of a Welfare state is another issue. As someone who had reason to take advantage of both the welfare state and the Jewish community largesse here in Australia, let me just say that it was the Welfare state and not my own community that rescued me in the late '90s, when I was down and out, without a job and without good health. So, we need the safety net provided by the State and that's a totally different issue from job creation and/or availability in specific communities. We all need jobs and some people need welfare at some point in their lives. I guess what I am trying to say is that one should not be at the expense of the other and to me your blog seems to suggest otherwise. (If I misread it, I apologise)

  6. FB Comment 1 by M.
    Amazing article. Thanks. I am fundamentally against welfare BUT, we have taught our society to function as "haves and have-nots" and so I think we have to restructure culturally before we get rid of welfare.

    If people naturally helped each other - directly - we might not need welfare. For instance, if you have a friend who can't afford health insurance but is working 2 part time jobs to pay the rent, etc, why not give him/her the extra to pay for monthly insurance? Then we say, they need to earn that themselves.

    Perhaps our economic challenges are encouraging us to look at the restructuring I'm suggesting. We are seeing that hard working people are being caught up in the whirlpool of the economic storm.

  7. FB Comment 2 by S.
    I can't speak to the religious arguments in that article, but even if one accepts them on their face I wonder if one can responsibly dismantle the welfare state in a day where society is so atomized (i.e., people don't even know, much less care about their neighbors) and the economy becomes increasingly knowledge-based.

    For all our technological wonders, it's getting harder and harder to keep your head above water, at least in America (and, from what I read, Israel, as well). In the past, a person who lacked the mental or emotional capacity to hold a down a decent job could survive because the pay of manual labor-based jobs was more in line with cost of living. Now, if you just can't hack it, you can end up homeless, dead in a ditch--perhaps, God forbid, with a family--and there's a good chance no one will notice. Also, I think it's really easy to exaggerate/misdiagnose the problem of welfare dependency/abuse; there are a lot of factors (not all of which are their fault).

    So, while I agree with the virtues of personal responsibility, I worry that some such calls are in practice more likely to hurt those who need and deserve help from the more fortunate. Also, I wonder if the first response shouldn't be resentment--however understandable if you're working hard but not getting ahead--but rather "There but for the grace of God go I."

    Instead of dismantling their few remaining protections in the economic jungle, a more practical and IMO moral goal might be to tackle the bigger problems facing us all: declining real wages, the rising cost of living, endless corporate welfare and immoral tax breaks for the wealthy.

  8. FB Comment 3 by Y.
    In the UK welfair is abused & has become a lifestyle for alot of the white indigenous families as well as some minorities but largly the white comunities.

    I've claimed welfaire on occasion but as I've worked my way from homelessness & on two ocasions drug addiction I feel that its for use not abuse.

    Then again our leaders here dont exacly lead by example when it comes to expences & bribes.

  9. FB comment 4 by H,
    S, I think Reb's hypothesis and he can correct me if I am wrong, is that what you have written is the direct result and consequence of a welfare state. Witness what has happened to the dignity of Native American peoples in Alaska and the "Lower" states. Indigenous peoples everywhere do not fare well once colonialized and conquered and then thrown a bone by the majority and the oppressors.

  10. FB Comment 5, by A.
    I don't think they should've been colonized in the first place. They're in the place they are now because the presidents kept making treaties and then taking them back. And then we call that "indian giving", when it was done TO indians by the US government.

    But even though handouts are bad, it's still the right thing to do, even though the thing wasn't done in the right way. Everything was taken from them, and they get a pittance back. They would be better off with jobs (not forced government jobs, but their own jobs, which they should be given resources for) or maybe it would be nice if they had some fertile land, instead of the crap land they have now.

  11. Elizabeth, M, S, Y, H & A. Thanks for your insigtful comments. I am not sure what should be done and what the causes are. I recognise there are differences between situaitons. Elizabeth, I have great respect for what Noel is doing and appreciate your sharing your experience and Y's in which Welfare was very helpful.

    I am suggesting the possibility that Welfare in some cases is harming the people it intends to help. It might still be the lesser of two evils, and that reducing or eliminating welfare at this stage could be far worse for the reasons you state.

    H, I am exploring the possibility that you summarized, and see some evidence for it, but I am far from certain. A, I think what your suggesting might be the ultimate solution in looking deeply at the whole picture and all the factors that are keeping people from self sufficiency. I was told by someone I respect that in Central Australia, there was a school that was teaching in Aboriginal languages for part of the day and working well, then it was shut down. A holistic review of the situation is needed. Followed by action.

  12. HC - a Christian colleagueAugust 29, 2011 at 6:51 PM

    Dear Zalman, thank you for your thoughts. I always enjoy your Torah-based reflections. Your topic this week is an important one. I am curious as to why you don't rely heavily upon the prophets which we from a Christian point of view always lean on when reflecting on social justice. Thanks again.
    Peace, H

  13. Thanks H for your email and kind words. In the orthodox Jewish tradition we look to the prophets for more general inspiration but not for guidance on issues of law. This topic had elements of moral discussion and law discussion which is why I was reluctant to refer to the prophets.Thanks for pointing this out.

  14. FB Comment #6.
    I'm not directing this at anybody in any way--this is just food for thought--but I think it's thought provoking that surveys show that large swathes of the American population profess to be for reasonable government financial support for honest, hardworking people who are temporarily down on their luck, but then say that spending needs to be cut dramatically for minorities.

    There is a sinister way that these arguments get perverted into parodies of the ideals they're invoking (whether willfully through the machinations of special interest groups or unintentionally through deep-seated stereotypes). I think it's very complex and, sadly, our political systems no longer seem able to deal with complexity (as the recent budget debate in WAshington shows).

  15. S, your point about support falling away when it comes to minorities really resonated for me. I find some religious Jews enamoured of the tea party, in spite of the fact that there are huge issues of poverty and welfare support in NY frum communities.

    I fear that for some people it might be about the association of the tea party and cuts to welfare with blacks and hispanics. I hope I am wrong.

  16. FB comment #7
    The welfare system in the us is not ment to help the users get off it and on to their own feet. its a system of traps and setbacks, take for instance, w-2, which is a system of handing out money, but the "work" tht has to be done is to fill... out a 40 hr a week job search and turn it into a case worker. you can sit infront of a computer in 20 minutes and fll out the 40 hr work search. If the search is not completed, the "money" in virtual transit, is then taken away from the recipient similar to "docking" ones pay. Im sure there are plenty of good and handworking people out there who are having tough times, i know ive had my fill!!! but welfair reform is a good idea, im just not sure how well received it will be. somethings just dont make sense anymore!

  17. FB #8.
    There are stupid poverty traps in the UK also that literally keep homeless people homeless.

  18. FB#9
    There's room for abuse in any agency. it's sad though when an agency that's supposed to help people actually oppresses them. I have to say, though, that Seattle has some great services for people who have hit hard times.

  19. FB #10
    The funny thing is (or cool) when my husband and I had a lot of money, we did as I suggest above. When we were struggling, help came from all over, as if out of nowhere. We think it's because we helped others when we could.

  20. FB #11 There is a hadith M, that says that when one gives charity your pocket will never go empty.

  21. Dear Zalman

    Thanks so much for this wonderful article.

    As an Australian in India half of every year, I am often struck by the problem of how to help.
    There are some who argue that trade at the bottom of the pyramid is a solution - but the sipporters for this position seem to use exagerated trade figures and ignore the many poor have a higher spending on alcohol and tobacco much as poor in the west do. Or that it develop new 'needs' to people ill able to afford the expense, or bear the risk if it goes wrong.
    As I am a private citizen unattached to an organization, it seems to me government, private sector and civil society need to work together.
    Multinational corporations often poorly understand peoples real needs making it hard for them to asses how their core values impact poverty or the local environment. But then oftenb people dontknow themselves.

    Do you see a Torah solution to poverty? I admit toi tryingto collect as many opinions on this topic from different viewpoints.

    Thankyou forcaring,
    Brian Sullivan

  22. Well said, Zalman. I particularly warm to the idea of encouraging not just jobs but also careers and enterprise (which of course may include both pro bono organisations and profit-taking orgs. These will provide jobs and, hopefully, careers to others, including some who may advance to their own enterprises.

    I'm interested in the concept of micro-business in developing countries, and organisations such as Opportunity International which provide, at ethical rates of interest, small manageable loans to people (in practice, mainly to women, I believe) with which they start a company, pay back the loan and then may borrow more to expand. They also provide training and mentoring, I think. The World Bank argues that money given to women in developing countries means that anything beyond that necessary to cover bare survival of the family, especially the children, will usually be spent on health and education. Thus, it is argued, for multinationals operating in developing countries, such assistance will benefit the organisations which support women, as it is often returned in the form of a better educated and skilled workforce.

    Of course, there will always be those who lack the physical or mental capacity to support themselves; and I'm happy to contribute through my taxes to the cost of decent systems and services to support them and their carers in an ethical fashion.

  23. Brian, I don't know of a Torah based solution. There is an assumption of a on-going problem to be aleviated. There is an emphasis in our sources toward helping people with loans and work opportunities.
    Prof. D, many thanks for your contriubtion.