Q. In a recent column you suggested that getting money from a government program is better than taking charity. What is the difference?
A. Recently I suggested that giving a sum of money as unemployment insurance is better than giving it as a charitable donation. One simple reason is that government programs are anonymous, and they don’t depend on the good will of the taxpayer. Therefore, the recipient doesn’t have to feel personally beholden to any individual.
Maimonides writes that the highest level of charity is not to give charity at all, but rather to help a person remain independent. But he then continues:
Less than that is one who gives charity to the poor and he doesn’t know to whom he gave and the poor person doesn’t know from whom he took. For this is a good deed for its own sake. . . And similar to this would be one who gives to a charity fund. (1)
So at the very least a government program is preferable to an outright gift from this point of view.
However, there is also another difference. Our Sages teach us that whenever possible we should strive not to take charity at all:
Rabbi Akiva said, one should [even] make the Sabbath like an ordinary weekday rather than accept from others. (2)
A little later in the same chapter we find:
Rav said to Rav Kahana . . . flay hides in the marketplace for wages, but don’t say, “I am a priest, I am a distinguished person, and it is beneath me [to do such work]. (3)
And the mishna states:
Anyone who doesn’t need yet takes, will not leave the world until he becames dependent on others. And anyone who needs but doesn’t take, will not die [even of] old age until he is able to support others. (Of course this does not apply to someone whose need is dire who is required to accept charity.)(4)
However, I believe that none of these dicta apply to social insurance programs that are not means-tested. In programs like unemployment insurance or social security, a person pays in money in order to be eligible for the benefit. When he becomes eligible, it is not because he is needy but merely because he is entitled to what he paid for.
In fact, I would say that these statements do not apply to any program that is not means tested, as long as no subterfuge is involved in obtaining eligibility. If the citizens of some polity decide to tax everybody in order to confer some benefit on certain citizens for some worthy cause, we may agree or disagree with the decision but it is not like giving charity to some wretched needy person.
The continuation of the above mishna condemns someone who pretends to be lame in order to obtain charity. But a person who really does have some disability is perfectly entitled to enjoy a government benefit designed to help people with such a problem. This would in fact be the highest level of charity: giving to someone as a gift without conditioning it in any way on poverty, so that there is no stigma.
Citizens can have legitimate disagreement on the proper extent of government programs and aid to various interest groups. However, once these programs are legitimately agreed upon there is no stigma involved in benefiting from them, as long as no kind of subterfuge is involved (even if it is short of fraud). There is even no hypocrisy involved in voting against a program and subsequently benefiting from it. After all, a person who votes against a program is not exempt from paying taxes for it, and so there is no reason he should feel disqualified from benefiting if he is eligible.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides’ Code, Gifts to the Poor 10:8. (2) Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 112a. (3) Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 113a. (4) Mishna Peah 8:9.