Q. What does Jewish tradition say about the welfare state? Is the community obligated to provide a decent living standard for the poor?

A. The modern welfare state as it exists in today's wealthy nations can point proudly to its many accomplishments. In most of these countries, the worst scourges of poverty such as malnutrition and illiteracy have been nearly eliminated. At the same time we can be frank about the shortcomings of these systems, which have contributed to the creation of a culture of dependency and according to many observers to a breakdown of traditional family structure.

Many of the tenets of the welfare state are based on the compassionate vision of the Hebrew prophets and were strongly influenced by Jewish tradition. By carefully examining the details of the traditional Jewish approach to alleviating poverty, we will gain some insight into how we can draw inspiration from this vision and still avoid some of the pitfalls of a welfare state.

The vision of the welfare state embodies two important values:

  1. 1.The poor should be provided a dignified standard of living, not a subsistence existence;
  2. Responsibility for the poor rests upon the community as a whole, so that the poor are not held hostage to the whims of wealthy donors.

The problem is that when we combine these two values, dignified living becomes an unconditional entitlement, not a charitable grant. This has an unfortunate result: the community standard of a "dignified standard of living" tends to be defined by the level which can be achieved by a simple, hard-working family head. When this standard of living becomes an unconditional standard of community support -- an entitlement -- the result is that hard work is discouraged and disparaged.

A related problem is that when so much responsibility is placed on the government, the individual who is not poor may feel a diminished sense of empathy and responsibility for the poor. He may view his responsibility as being fulfilled by merely paying taxes, without requiring any personal involvement in alleviating the plight of the deprived.

How can we avoid these dual pitfalls?

If we examine Jewish law, we find that both of the foundational values of the welfare state are expressed there:

  1. Dignified standard of living: "How much should be given to the poor person? According to his needs."(1) The Shulchan Arukh goes on to explain that a person's needs correspond to his accustomed standard of living, even though this may be far above bare subsistence.
  2. Community responsibility: "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." (2)

So far it seems like the welfare state as it exists in the more generous countries reflects the Jewish approach exactly. But if we examine the traditional sources more carefully, we see that there is a subtle but critical distinction:

The obligation of the community -- the "entitlement" aspect of charity -- is limited to basic needs. In Jewish law basic needs do go beyond mere subsistence, and include for example schooling. But they are still at a basic level. The chapter we cited from the Shulchan Arukh is focused mainly on the distribution of food.

By contrast, the ideal of providing a dignified standard of living applies to an individual voluntary donor.

In other words, Jewish law does affirm the importance of providing the poor with a dignified standard of living, and it also affirms the importance of an entitlement dimension in the welfare system, which enables the poor to attain aid in a non-demeaning way. But these two dimensions are distinct. In this way no citizen is denied a subsistence existence, even if his poverty is due to irresponsible habits. But attaining a more dignified level requires either going to work or finding someone who is freely willing to aid the poor person.

At the same time, the wealthier citizens are called upon to take an active, personal role in alleviating poverty and elevating the poor above the bare subsistence level provided by entitlements. This augments the element of solidarity and empathy among all levels of society.

The modern welfare state can be proud of its role in alleviating poverty, but today governments are seeking ways to reduce costs and avoid creating a demoralizing culture of dependency. Based on the insights of Jewish law, we may suggest that government entitlement programs, essential as they are, should work in tandem with private initiatives in a two-tier system which preserves the dignity of all: the poorest of all who are provided with a non-demeaning entitlement system for their basic needs; those poor who need to supplement their income who are empowered to turn to private individuals or charity organizations for more extensive support in attaining a dignified life-style; and last but not least the wealthier citizens who are called upon to display personal responsibility for the plight of the needy.

(1)Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 250:1. (2) Yoreh Deah 256:1.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.