Poverty and obligation

More depressing news from the home office in Washington DC. The US Census Bureau this week released its report Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. Despite the sexy title, the report provides some rather grim reading. Everybody who is not living in a cave (or is not the CEO of a major corporation) knows that we are in economic trouble. Household income is down by 2.3%. The number of people without health insurance is now at 49.9 million (statistically the same as in 2009). However, the most disturbing statistic is the poverty rate. According to the report, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line last year (15.1%) was the highest percentage since 1993, and the number of Americans living in poverty in 2010 is the largest number in the 52 years for which the poverty estimates have been published. (The New York Times report is here.)

To restate, 46.2 million Americans are living below the poverty line. The poverty line for a family of four last year was $22,314. To put this in perspective, the living wage in Los Angeles—the amount a family of four has to make so that they can afford food, child care, medical care, housing and transportation is $70,860. That would be almost $50,000 more than the poverty line if you lived in the city of dreams. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but the living wage for a family of four in Sheboygan, Wisconsin is $59,510, which means that your family of four would need an extra $37,196 to both eat and pay rent.)

The Washington Post also reports today that House Speaker John Boehner in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington rejected any increase in tax revenue and instead said that a special committee seeking long-term debt reduction should find $1.5 trillion in savings entirely from cutting federal agency spending and slashing popular entitlement programs. That includes those very programs which relieve poverty and its effects.

So lets take a step back and ask the larger theoretical and ideological question. Is the support of the poor an obligation on society, and therefore should be enacted through the government by way of taxation? Or, is the support of the poor not a government obligation but, rather an individual’s obligation and perhaps a sign of personal virtue (to paraphrase former VP Dick Cheney)? Should the government be in the business of poverty relief?

Torah has a lot to say about poverty. Every person is commanded to support the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7). Every farmer is commanded to leave a corner of his field for the hungry to harvest. The grain that falls on the ground during harvest is also to be left for the poor (Leviticus 19:9; 23:22). If you lend money to a poor person you must take special care not to take advantage of him (Deuteronomy 24:10). I could go on for quite a while.

However, all this is personal. According to the Torah, I have an obligation to support poor people that I meet. I have an obligation to leave the corners of my field for the poor. This is fine if you are the poor guy in a rural area with lots of farms (think the Central Coast of California or the Galilee). You would definitely not starve to death, and you would be able to gather enough to provide for your family. (This is the context of the Book of Ruth.) However, what if you live in Los Angeles, or Jerusalem. Urban areas have many more poor people and far fewer agricultural resources.

One of the most important contributions of the Rabbinic tradition is the understanding that poverty relief is not an obligation on the individual but on the city. The third century Mishnah (Peah 8:7) sets a minimum standard for poverty relief which must be met by the city. The resources for the welfare funds are gathered by the city through assessments on the residents. All residents of a town were obligated to support the soup kitchen, the community chest, the burial society and the urban infrastructure. This system was outlined in the Mishnah and burnished in the Talmuds (Baba Bathra 7b-8b) and codified in the medieval law codes (Maimonides, Laws of the Obligations to the Poor, Chapter 9).

At the end of the day, if a poor person is even passing through a city, the city has an obligation to make sure that she has the resources for two meals. The Rabbinic understanding is that the city is the institutional mechanism for mediating the obligation that residents have towards the poor who live or sojourn amongst them. This is not a matter of personal virtue but legal, moral and religious obligation.

This is where we are today. At the moment when there are more poor people in the United States than at any time since these statistics were recorded; at the moment when there are fewer jobs to be had by those poor people, fewer sources of revenue; at this moment there is a growing sentiment to back off of our obligations to the needy amongst us. This is the choice that is before us. Do we choose to be a society in which poverty relief is recognized as a moral and therefore also a legal obligation? Or do we elevate private acquisition and ownership to a religious level?

Ezekiel (chapter 16) has a name for a place which hoards its wealth even at the expense of other peoples’ lives: Sodom.

One thought on “Poverty and obligation

  1. Pingback: Justice in the City | Jewschool

Comments are closed.