Welfare: Universal or Means-Tested Benefits?

by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair

The welfare policy debate in Israel and other countries has much to learn from Jewish tradition’s vast experience, out of which a profound and detailed system of laws and insights about communal welfare has evolved. In this short article, based on more extensive research sponsored by the Center for Business Ethics, we will present just one of the issues on which Jewish tradition can deepen and enrich the contemporary discussion.

This has been a running argument in welfare policy for fifty years. The issue is, should welfare benefits be awarded universally to all those who fall within a particular category of the population, such as being unemployed, over 65, having two children, or should they be means-tested in order to direct available funds to the most financially needy?

Proponents of universal benefits argue that they are more dignified. They are open to rich and poor alike, a right of citizenship, whereas means-testing stigmatises the poor. Supporters of means-testing, on the other hand, criticise universal benefits as wasteful and inefficient. They give help which should be given only to the truly poor, to the very people who don’t need it. Furthermore, as levels of longevity and long-term unemployment have increased far beyond what the welfare states’ founders envisaged, the costs of universal benefits have spiralled out of control.

Jewish tradition has a clear perspective on the issue. The obligation to give charity is of central importance to Judaism. In supporting the needy we work towards Tikkun Olam, the realisation of a just, perfected world; and we imitate God’s attributes of lovingkindness in the world. As the Talmud puts it, “Just as God clothes the naked, so should you… just as he visits the sick, so should you.” (Sotah 14a). This obligation to do charity and lovingkindness is not only on the individual. The halakha legislates that every Jewish community must set up institutions to care for the needy. The Talmud (Bava Batra 8a) describe a wide range of funds which existed in each town; for clothing, food, burial and collective security. Maimonides legislates that each town where Jews live must appoint an official responsible for charity, and declares that he has neither seen nor heard of a Jewish community without at least a food fund for the poor. These and countless other laws and principles express the vital importance in Jewish tradition of tzedaka, charity (in fact, literally, justice).

However, although giving charity to the needy is a supreme religious obligation, both on the individual and the community accepting charity carries an unavoidable taint of shame. The rabbis were emphatic that a person should go to all reasonable lengths to avoid a situation of dependence on the community, with sayings such as “make your Shabbat like a week-day rather than accept charity, and “better to flay a dead animal in the market place (for a living) than to accept charity.” In the rabbinic view, accepting charity was indeed a right to which the genuinely poor were entitled, but was far from being a badge of citizenship to be worn with pride.

This aversion to people accepting charity when not in real need was extended to injunctions on the community not to give charity to such claimants. Jewish law instituted a means-test for recipients of communal funds. The Shulchan Aruch codified that public charity could not be given to those with capital assets of 200 zuz and above, or working capital of 50 zuz. (Both sums were sufficient to yield a year’s basic living expenses.) In addition, it stresses that the community must check the neediness of those who come claiming support for clothing from public funds, (though not those who claim food, lest they die of hunger while they’re waiting.) Underlying this principle is not just a desire to use public charity as effectively as possible, but also a concern that living on communal funds should not become a long-term situation. The economic argument of using public money efficiently is underpinned by a moral claim, that funds collected from individuals by the coercive powers of community taxation should be given to those who really need and deserve help.

We see how Jewish sources support directing public funds to those most in need, which, in modern terms, implies a preferences for means-tested benefits over universal ones. Many modern countries, most notably Britain, are shifting the focus of their welfare policies in this direction for a mixture of economic and ethical reasons. Israel, which has mostly universal benefits, lags behind in this area. Its policy makers could learn from Jewish tradition, if not from other countries, to improve the fairness and efficiency of its welfare system.
Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, and is currently a Rabbi in the U.K.