Parashat Re'eh

Dealing With Poverty

It would be wise to consider sound anti-poverty programs that tackle the general problem of lack of ownership.

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The Importance of Property

If not shemitah, can the parashah provide us with other solutions to the problem of poverty and debt? Perhaps it would be wise to consider sound anti-poverty programs that tackle the general problem of lack of ownership, an idea also evoked in this week's parashah: "The Levite has no portion nor heritance among you...Do not neglect the Levite" (Deuteronomy 12:12,19).

This command not to neglect the Levite is reiterated in Deuteronomy 14:27. Since the rabbinic tradition is ever aware of scriptural superfluity, might the reader infer that the second utterance comprises all who are like the Levite, i.e., the landless? What may be done for people who do not own property?

One promising policy is formalizing microeconomic property rights. In my experience as a health extension agent in the Cameroonian Sahel, most land was informally leased from local chiefs and princes, who in turn held the property in trust. In the same way, the Economist reports that less than one African in ten has formal title to the property on which she or he lives. 

Reviving Dead Capital

parashat re'eh ajwsAccording to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, this wholly "informal ownership of land and goods" and "lack of such an integrated system of property rights in today's developing nations makes it impossible for the poor to leverage their now informal ownerships into capital (as collateral for credit)." This leaves the rural or urban poor sitting indefinitely on wealth that they can never use: "dead capital."

De Soto and others argue for formalizing these informal arrangements, "for example by giving squatters in shanty towns land titles to the land they now live on." At last estimate 10 years ago, the value of informally owned African houses and farms was about one trillion dollars, or 70 times the continent's annual foreign aid.

Economist Thomas Howell notes that real estate held, but not owned, by poor people in developing nations (for example, those villages in the Cameroonian Sahel) is "more than 20 times all direct foreign investment in the Third World and more than 90 times all the foreign aid to all Third World countries over the past three decades." What's more, tensions between over-imprecise property titles may even ignite civil conflicts, including Côte d'Ivoire's civil war.

Formalizing property rights is vital to eliminating poverty--let us advocate for such policies. Perhaps this is a key to fulfilling the promise of our parashah: "There shall no longer be any poor among you, and surely God will bless you" (Deuteronomy 15:4). Give the poor proper title to the property they already hold, and they will no longer be so poor. 

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Alon Ferency

Alon Ferency is a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.