I am a physician who has recently started a five-year fellowship at a top medical center. While the fellowship is highly sought after, the pay is very meager. When I complete the fellowship, my salary could easily rise tenfold. But in the meantime, my family of three qualifies for food stamps since my salary is so low. Given that our current economic status is temporary, and we are looking at such an increase in the foreseeable future, is it ethical for me to apply for government assistance now? Does it make a difference that over the course of my life, I will almost certainly pay a lot more in taxes that I will receive in services?
Dear Temporarily Poor,
The 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (who, by interesting coincidence, also earned his living as a physician) discusses in a legal text a problem analogous to yours. Maimonides rules that if a traveler who has assets at home finds himself on the road without funds, he is permitted to go to a local charity and request assistance. When he returns home (and in medieval times, this could have been months later), he has no legal requirement to pay back the money given him by the charity because, at the time he requested the assistance, he was in genuine need.
In other words, the fact that the traveler will some months later have sufficient funds to support himself doesn't mean that he should forestall receiving assistance when he genuinely needs it. Similarly, the fact that you will make substantial amounts of money in another five years does nothing to assuage you and your family's current need for food. So, if you are being paid a salary small enough to qualify you for food stamps, I see no moral reason why you should be forbidden to use them--that is, unless your income is being supplemented by substantial gifts from your or your wife's family.
That you feel a measure of guilt for taking food stamps reflects well on your character, since you realize that food stamps are intended for society's neediest members, and not for medical specialists. And I do believe that down the road you have a moral, though not a legal, obligation, to find a way to pay back the value of the food stamps you have received.
Having just argued that if you need the food stamps, you have the right to take them, why do I think you have a moral obligation to pay back what you received? My reasoning is as follows. There is no requirement that you study on this special fellowship. You have already trained as a physician and are capable of working and earning sufficient money so that you need not receive government subsidies. It is only because you have made a personal decision to continue your studies that you have voluntarily put yourself in a deprived circumstance and therefore now need government assistance. This is what distinguishes you from most food stamp recipients. The large majority of people who require food stamps did not arrive at that state voluntarily, as you have.
Therefore, may I suggest the following: Keep a basic tab of how much you receive over the coming years, and once you embark on your career, make donations in that amount to charitable organizations such as City Harvest or Food for Survival that directly provide food to people in need. Also, let this whole experience, which I assume from the tone of your letter you find to be somewhat embarrassing, cause you to have greater compassion for those who are involuntarily poor, and make sure that when you do "make it," you treat at low rates or free of charge a certain percentage of your patients who otherwise would not be able to afford your services.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.