The Jewish Ethicist: How Poor is Poor
When is a person eligible for assistance?
Q. I'm an older person, too sick to work, living on a fixed income that is not really enough for my needs. Can I collect charity?
A.The question of who is considered poor is a fundamental one in Jewish law, because many commandments of the Torah apply specifically to the poor and needy. For example, a farmer in the Land of Israel is required to leave part of the harvest for the benefit of the poor: "And when you cut the harvest of your land, don't eliminate the corner of the field in your cutting, and don't gather the stray sheaf; leave it for the poor and the sojourner - I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:22).
Likewise, we are commanded to give charity to the needy: "When there will be a needy person from among your brothers in any of your gates in your land which the Lord, your God gave you, don't harden your heart and don't close your hand to your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7).
The Mishnah teaches us that there is a specific criterion for poverty: "Someone who has 200 zuz [an ancient coin], may not take the stray or forgotten sheaf or the unharvested corner or the poor tithe." (1) The commentators explain that 200 zuz is about the amount a person needs for a year's subsistence. The idea is that someone should not accumulate a cushion for more than a year's subsistence at the expense of charity funds, but at the same time a poor person does not have to wait until his situation is urgent before taking the initiative to provide for his needs.
The Mishnah continues: "We do not obligate him to sell his house or his household articles." A person's accustomed home and furnishings are considered necessities for him. This refers to reasonable articles, but a person may not collect charity from the public fund if he has luxury items that he could sell without hardship.
The next Mishnah tells us: "Someone who has 50 zuz and trades with them, may not take." This Mishnah reminds us that the main source of livelihood is not wealth, but income. Someone with very little money who has a steady source of income is far from poor. So a person who is able to generate income with a small amount of capital is not poor.
Many prominent Jewish law authorities generalized from this ruling and concluded that the most meaningful measure of poverty is that someone does not have the basic wherewithal to earn a living. The Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) writes: "Some say that all of these amounts apply only to those days, but nowadays a person may take until he has enough capital that he and his family can subsist from the earnings. And this is a sensible approach." (2) The intention is not to obtain a passive income from the interest, but rather to have some productive asset such as a workshop or store, which enables the owner to earn enough for necessities. The main principle is that poverty is mostly a function of insufficient income rather than insufficient wealth.
The criteria set down in Jewish law are a kind of "default option" for a Jewish public fund that hasn't set any other conditions. But the ideal situation is that any kind of fund or organization should carefully establish its own set of transparent and equitable criteria for funding. In some cases the criteria may be stricter than those we mentioned. The Mishnah in Peah states that in order to be eligible for the weekly distribution of "emergency rations" a person has to lack even a week's worth of food; likewise, individuals or the community may want to set up an emergency fund for the most desperately needy. In other cases the criteria should be more lenient; for example, most schools give scholarships to qualified students who find full tuition a hardship even if the family does have enough to provide basic needs.
When eligibility criteria are clearly stated, equitable, and directly relevant to the declared goals of the organization, then anyone who genuinely meets the criteria need not hesitate about accepting help.
An older person on a fixed income that is insufficient for basic needs is certainly eligible for charity assistance. But in general, eligibility for any kind of aid should be predicated on rational conditions that will most promote the goals of the fund.
(1) Mishnah Peah 8:8 (2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 253:2.
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