In My Own Words: Being a sucker or harming the needy?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I love reading books about social psychology, particularly ones that not only give me a greater understanding of human nature, but make me question my own behavior. But rarely do I have the opportunity to read a news story that highlights the idea under discussion while I was reading about it.

The book is “Fool Proof: How the Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order – And What We Can Do About It” (Harper Wave). The author, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and has a law degree and a doctorate in psychology. Her work talks about how our fear of being suckered – that is, having someone take advantage of us – can work against our best interests, personal and political. The studies she discusses show that people often act against their own best interest because of that fear. This includes people turning down a deal if they feel it’s unfair, even if it would have meant they received money they didn’t earn. 

The chapter that relates to the news story I mentioned spoke about how we may want to help people, but are also afraid of being suckered. Most of us agree that hungry children don’t learn well in school and it’s to our society’s benefit that children have enough to eat. At one time, this was considered important for our defense: too many men were unable to become soldiers during World War II because of the malnutrition they suffered during the Great Depression. 

As far as I can recall, no one has actually said, “I don’t care if children starve.” However, that can be the result of their actions if they fear being fooled. In this case, the headline said, "Republicans Plan to Cut Free School Lunches" and its first paragraph made the connection clear: “The largest ideological caucus in the House Republican conference is proposing steep cuts to free and reduced school lunch programs nationwide, citing the need to ‘prevent the widespread fraud present in the program.’” (The italics are mine.) While stopping fraud is a good idea, the underlying idea is “we’re afraid that we are being played for suckers by giving money to what might be a good program because some of the people may be abusing it.” 

To be clear: I’m not saying that there isn’t fraud in the program and/or there may be better ways to handle the problem of child hunger. I think there should be transparency and oversight of all government programs not only to prevent fraud, but to see if there are better ways to deal with a particular problem. The government’s first try at anything almost always needs to be refined. But after reading “Fool Proof,” it’s also clear that these legislators’ main fear is that people are taking advantage of the program. By the way, no one is saying that feeding hungry children isn’t a good thing. Finding the most efficient way to do so is an excellent goal. But the statement from these legislators is not “we should find a better way to do this,” but “we think people are taken advantage of us and that makes us suckers.” 

Of course my liberal leanings mean that I would rather feed 100 children who don’t need it rather than risk one going without. But this is also the Jewish response: According to our tradition, everything we have is given to us by God and it’s our obligation to help others, for example, the biblical law stating that we have to leave the corners of the fields for the needy. This is not a choice. In fact, rabbinic tradition says those parts of our fields do not belong to us, but to those in the community who are in need. No one is to question those who glean from those fields: we are not the gatekeepers. 

Perhaps rather than being worried about being a sucker, we should be grateful for what we have and use it to help others. Yes, I know this is not an American ideal, but perhaps we should worry more about our Jewish practice than about the American fear of being taken for a sucker. Yes, make each program as good as it can be, but also make sure those children get fed. In Jewish terms, that’s what matters.