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