Centuries before a person could earn a master’s degree in humanitarian studies, social work, or international development, ancient societies enacted laws to protect the poor and needy of their communities. One of the earliest examples of such a law dates from before 1500 B.C. and is found in an ancient manuscript called the Elleh hadebarim, more popularly known by its Latin name, Deuteronomy. It says the following:
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Deuteronomy 24:19-21
This law has been practiced in various ways and among different communities throughout history and has become popularly known as the “gleaning principle.” Amy Sherman, in her book Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor, points out the two-fold responsibility of the gleaning principle:
- Resource owners (in this case, farmers) have a responsibility to eschew greed and make available to others the opportunity for them to meet their needs. They are to be generous with what produce they have.
- The poor (if able-bodied) have a responsibility to take some initiative and work to meet their own needs. This avoids the cultivation of a dependency mindset and offers the needy person the dignity of earning his sustenance instead of passively receiving a handout. Gleaning gives the poor the opportunity to meet their own needs through their own application of labor.
Social work and international development studies have rediscovered the two-fold responsibilities outlined in the gleaning principle. Today these concepts are being integrated in the program designs of Operation Mercy and many other international humanitarian organizations doing relief and development among the poor and needy. The principle highlights the responsibility of resource owners to be generous and of the responsibility of the poor to participate actively in meeting their own needs (when they can).
One historical example of how the ‘gleaning principle’ was creatively applied comes from the 1800s. Between 1820 and 1870 the industrial revolution, wars, and mass urbanization created waves of immigrants in New York City. In that 50 year period New York City’s population increased seven fold, half of whom were foreign born. Public and private service systems were overwhelmed, riots were frequent, crime was rampant and child cruelty and exploitation was common. Churches, synagogues, and civic groups opened shelters and soup kitchens in the city to try to meet some of the basic needs of these poor. One private shelter was housing 250 people a day and feeding many more. The operators of this shelter decided to require all able-bodied users of the shelter/soup kitchen to cut a certain amount of wood to earn a ticket for a bed and/or a meal. Since wood and coal were used for heating, it was common for buildings to have a small lot for cutting wood and coal. The shelter provided the wood, axes, and saws. Interestingly, the amount of applicants asking for help from this shelter was considerably reduced within a week.
As a 24 year old working for a large international management consulting firm in downtown Washington D.C., I applied the gleaning principle in another way. I made an agreement with the company who operated the parking garage under our office building near the White House, where I (or anyone in my firm) could offer a job ‘on-the-spot’ to any street person we encountered in Washington D.C. to sweep trash up in the underground parking lots for an hourly wage. We financed it from our own salaries. However, very few ever accepted the job.
During my 30s and 40s I lived in Istanbul, a city teaming with people and a different type of poor. There I had my own business and regularly had beggars coming to my office. I also had neighbors and other acquaintances that were unemployed or marginally employed. In Istanbul I applied the gleaning principle a little differently. From the profits of my own business, I prepared products for people to sell or manufacture. Whenever someone was in need of a job I had something to offer them. I have a variety of products depending on their need and my relationship with them. I had a few odd jobs around my own office that I felt it was safe for strangers and/or unskilled people to do. I also made arrangements with several different small businessmen to temporarily employ people I might bring to them. One of the most important lessons from these years was witnessing how consistently “interpersonal conflict” (i.e. broken relationships) contributed to personal poverty. I’ll write more about this in another article.