Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Parsha Behar: What Is the Ultimate Form of Poverty Relief?

In the wonderful world of public policy, there is much contention around the topic of poverty. Generally speaking, liberals advocate for more welfare as a means to alleviate poverty, while conservatives advocate for job creation. There seems to be little that either side agrees on, although this report co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution is a nice start.   What is interesting about this week's Torah portion is that Jewish tradition weighs in on the issue:

וכי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך והחזקת בו גר ותושב וחי עמך.
If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him, stranger or resident, so that he can live with you. -Leviticus 25:35

While this doesn't seemingly relate to public policy, let us take a look at Rambam's (Maimonides) eight levels of giving tzedakah ("charity") [Mishneh Torah, Mattanot Aniyim 10] in reverse order: 

8. When donations are given grudgingly
7. When one gives less than he should, but does happily
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked
4. When the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor doesn't know the identity
3. When the donor is aware of the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know the identity
2. When neither donor nor recipient know the other's identity
1. Giving a substantial gift in a dignified manner, extending a large loan, or helping the poor person find employment so that his hand is fortified and he doesn't have to ask for money [alms] (Mattanot Aniyim 10:7)

For Rambam, Leviticus 25:35 is the prooftext for what constitutes the highest level of tzedakah, and it also teaches us that poverty is something we should prevent. If someone loses their job, it is our responsibility to make sure the situation doesn't go from bad to worse. That could help explain why, in the following verse of Leviticus 25:36, that we are not meant to give a loan with interest (Sforno).

Rambam gives us two options that can translate into public policy: a direct cash transfer to the poor (either in the form of a gift or loan) or finding the individual a job. Both of these options are on the top of the hierarchy from a Jewish standpoint. Nevertheless, one could still get into the debate of which is more effective. When stating the most important level of giving a donation, Rambam puts a conditional clause at the end: "so that his hand is fortified and he doesn't have to ask for money [alms]." Does this clause apply to all three forms of giving, or strictly the last one? While the text is not explicit on the matter, I would argue that the clause only applies to job creation. For one, lending a large sum of money puts considerable strain on a relationship. Plus, in the Birkat Hamazon, there is a blessing about mercy in which we ask that we never become dependent on a loan. The Rabbis in the Pirke Avot (2:2) were also astute to point out that Torah study without work leads to sin, and the Bible points out that we were meant to work for six days and rest on the seventh (Exodus 34:21). Essentially, work is the best way to keep someone from becoming idle and poor (Proverbs 10:4).

Some things here don't necessarily translate into modern-day times, such as dealing with retired people since retirement really wasn't a concept in pre-modern times. One could also argue that in-kind transfers (as opposed to direct cash transfers) such as food stamps didn't exist, therefore Rambam couldn't recommend them in his list. On the other hand, as he states in the Mishneh Torah, the whole purpose is to make sure that we don't have to ask for money more, that there isn't a dependency on loans. Another point is that the verse states twice that you should help "within your proximity" (עמך). We are meant to do what is within our sphere of influence, and also remember that we are to do what works. If the goal is to make sure people are not in poverty, we want to pull them out of that situation as long as possible. There is plenty of evidence showing that being on unemployment insurance lengthens the period that one is in financial duress. Food stamps also create a disincentive to work, thereby prolonging the time at which one is stuck in a state of seemingly perpetual government dependence. While some things do change, one thing is for certain here: the Rabbis were right back in the day in saying that having people work was a good idea, and focusing on job creation as a form of poverty relief is still a good policy idea now. 

1 comment:

  1. The rabbis also didn't foresee a future in which many jobs are automated and outsourced, or in which minorities and the disabled still face increased poverty and job discrimination. That's one of the many reasons I think universal basic income is a good idea.