Rattling the Cage: If welfare is bad, why is charity good?

Nobody shakes your hand or smiles soulfully at you when you pay your income taxes.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
It's sort of funny how middle-class Israelis are against giving welfare to people who they insist should support their own families - meaning anybody except the old or the handicapped - yet they consider it a humanitarian obligation to give these people charity. After all, we're talking about one and the same needy population. Israelis who live on welfare and child allowances from the state are also getting food baskets at Pessah and Rosh Hashana from private charities, not to mention hot meals, basic food supplies, used clothing and even prescribed medicines all year round. What's the difference to these people if they get government welfare or private charity? Is charity better for them? Not that I can see. I don't understand why welfare should be despised as a crippler of the poor, a destroyer of their initiative, while charity is seen as a blessing for them. It seems to me that if welfare cripples the poor, so does charity. Which means it's only logical that if middle-class Israelis are against giving welfare to the non-old and non-handicapped, they should also be against giving them charity - at Pessah, Rosh Hashana or any other time. They don't want to cripple these people, do they? PART OF the reason why well-off Israelis scowl over welfare yet glow over charity is ideology - the thousand-points-of-light, government-is-the-problem Republican economic creed that took over Israel after it took over America. (The "social" vote in the Israeli election was cast mainly by the poor, not the middle-class.) It was once said of Gerald Ford, in his days as a Republican congressman, that if he was going to work on a winter day and he saw a homeless man without a coat, he would take off his own coat, give it to the man, then race into the Capitol and vote to slash welfare. There are a lot of people like that today - believers in economic self-reliance who rail against "socialism" in the daytime, then go home, clear out all their usable old clothes and furniture and give them to the poor, along with a check - and they don't see any contradiction. A businessman will fire as many employees as he can, sending them to the poorhouse so his company's profit will be even more astronomical, then go to a benefit for one of Israel's many poorhouses and hand over a small personal fortune. These materialists-by-day, philanthropists-by-night don't notice any connection between the economic status quo they endorse and the mounting pleas for help they're getting from charity fundraisers. But there's another, simpler reason why the bourgeois and the rich hate welfare but love charity - because giving to charity makes them feel good, while paying taxes that go for welfare just makes them angry. This, of course, is understandable - you give a check to the rabbi who heads up the charity organization and he gives you a handshake that makes you feel like you're actually worth something as a human being after all. You toss a few lousy cans of corn into the shopping cart of the Scouts or Bnei Akiva kids collecting outside the supermarket, and they give you that youthful, unguarded smile that sends you walking back to your car about 10 shekels taller. On the other hand, nobody shakes your hand or smiles soulfully at you when you pay your income taxes. Moreover, the image of charity recipients is so unthreatening. They're weeping, they're pathetic, they're surrounded by their weeping, pathetic children, and they're so damn grateful just for something to eat, for a decent pair of clothes. And they're never angry. They never demand, they implore. They don't hate the rich, they throw themselves on the mercy of the rich. They aren't revolutionaries; in fact, they aren't political at all. The only power they wield is the power to make people feel sorry for them. Even the young sharks at the Finance Ministry would open their wallets to them. But when poor people start agitating for bigger child allowances, income supplements, unemployment benefits, single-parent subsidies and the like - when they start accusing like Vikki Knafo and her screaming mothers, or those unshaven ones who camped out across from the boutiques in North Tel Aviv - then they're not so sympathetic. I don't want to pay taxes to support them. Let them work or let them starve, and if they're already working, let them work harder. And then, when these very same people and hundreds of thousands like them line up all night for their Pessah food baskets - oh, the poor things, their poor children, how can this happen in a Jewish country, bla bla bla bla. The Israeli middle class wants a society based on 19th-century-style noblesse oblige, not a 20th-century-style welfare state. And that's a problem because there are two differences between government welfare - meaning a range of social benefits to the needy - and private charity. The first difference is that charity is no substitute for the welfare state anywhere, anytime; now, in Israel, it cannot come close to supporting roughly 1.5 million poor people. The second difference is that welfare isn't as humiliating to recipients and their children as charity is. Receiving bank transfers from the government doesn't shame you publicly, but it does when people you know see you coming out of the soup kitchen. A welfare state costs the public much, much more than private charity, it isn't heart-warming, and there's no "donor recognition." From the self-interest of the haves, it doesn't hold a candle to philanthropy. But from the self-interest of the have-nots, which also deserves attention, Israel's new charity industry is leaving them more thoroughly crippled and defeated than the old welfare state ever did. The wisdom in the saying, "It's better to give than to receive," turns out to be pretty harsh stuff.