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The Jewish Ethicist - New Kid in Town

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should new residents get the same welfare benefits as veterans?

Q. Recently our state has been flooded with impoverished people from out of state. These people never paid in to our welfare system, and they probably never will. Are we obligated to support them alongside veteran residents?

A. Supporting the poor is a cardinal religious responsibility in Judaism. The Torah commands us, "When there will be a needy person from one of your brethren, in one of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, don't harden your heart and don't shut your hand from your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7).

However, since resources may be limited for this commandment, there is a need for establishing priorities. These are learned from another verse: "When you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, don't be unto him like a creditor" (Exodus 22:24). The sages of the Talmud inferred from the verse "to my people" that "My people and a foreigner, My people have priority," from the words "to the poor" that the poor have precedence (for a loan) over the wealthy; and from the words "among you" they learned, "the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have precedence." (1)

So there is no question that your state's welfare budget shouldn't be sent to poor people in other states, or other countries. But what about people from other places who are visitors or immigrants to your area?

According to Jewish law, townspeople are responsible for the basic needs of everyone in their town, but there is a different level of responsibility towards for visitors.

According to Jewish law, townspeople are responsible for the basic needs of everyone in their town, but there is a different level of responsibility towards for visitors than there is towards residents. Here is an adaptive translation of the relevant Talmudic passage: "Food parcels are given out every day, funds are distributed from week to week. Food parcels are given [even] to the poor of the world, funds to the poor of that city." (2)

In other words, no one is left to go hungry, but the needs of visitors are provided only from day to day. This would correspond to some kind of emergency aid or perhaps a soup kitchen. The charity fund, which was usually given in money and provided for a longer period, is distributed only to residents.

However, among town residents no distinction is made between veteran residents and new arrivals. Once a person is a resident of a particular area, then his neighbors become responsible for his welfare. In general Jewish law assumes that after 30 days a person is considered a resident, but that's only a rule of thumb. If it's clear that a new resident has come to stay he becomes a resident right away, both in terms of his obligation to give charity (or pay taxes) and his entitlement to receive it. Likewise if a person is clearly just on an extended visit he can keep visitor status for a longer time.

It is interesting to note that in a 1999 decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that states may not discriminate between recent immigrants and veteran residents in giving welfare benefits. Even the judges who opposed the decision agreed in principal, but felt that a limited period of reduced eligibility could be viewed as a "good-faith residency requirement" to ensure the person really has moved, much like the 30-day period established by Jewish law.

The fact that people did not pay in is highly relevant for a social insurance program like Social Security or unemployment benefits. Such programs do routinely give variable benefits depending on how much and how long people paid in. But when it comes to people's most basic needs the community needs to provide alike for new and old.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 8b.

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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.

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