Friday, January 30, 2009

Legal - Does Not Always Mean Ethical

I’m told that it is apparently a fairly common practice in Lakewood for Avreichim, - married men who spend full time learning Torah in a Kollel - to use government welfare programs to help them make ends meet.
Government programs like food stamps or Medicaid generally have strict rules that must be followed in order to qualify. And like most government programs these rules are subject to abuse. Welfare fraud is widespread in this country. But abuse does not always mean fraud. One can actually legally qualify and still be unethical in taking government aid.

Programs like these are designed to help the truly indigent - those who are unable to help themselves. Most Avreichim are able bodied men who come from middle class backgrounds. Should they choose to join the workforce they would very likely find a job where they would earn enough money to be disqualified from these government programs. But for idealistic reasons having nothing to do with the intent of welfare they have chosen to not to join the workforce. They sacrifice that income so that they can spend their times in the Beis HaMedrash of the Yeshiva learning full time. The stipends given these young men by the Yeshiva are well below the poverty line. Hence they ‘game’ the system to supplement their income.

While technically not doing anything wrong, is this not causing a Chilul HaShem? Most of these Avreichim come from a middle class background - not an impoverished one. Most of them are bright and have good enough secular educations to get jobs that will put them over the poverty line. They would easily make enough money to disqualify them from using any of these welfare programs. Is it right to use the system to further a goal – no matter how noble – that was not intended to be used in that way? Even if abuse is widespread, does that mean we should be a party to it - even if technically legal?

I am told that Lakewood actually advises their Avreichim to do this as a means toward enabling them to stay in Kollel. Is it not a Chilul HaShem to have such widespread ethical - if not legal abuse of the system? I understand the need. I understand the motivation. But is gaming the system – even if by legal means is the right thing to do?

The welfare system is supposed to be a form of charity. That our ‘best and brightest’ are advised to see it as income is just plain wrong and contributes to the negative images anti-Semites always paint about Jews and money.