From riches to rags?

Even middle-class olim from N. America could fall into the poverty trap.

September 19, 2007 21:12
aliya 298 nefesh benefesh

aliya 298 nefesh benefes. (photo credit: Nefesh Benefesh)

Rachel does not remember much from that fateful day five years ago when her bicycle slammed into a car door on a busy Tel Aviv street, but what she does know is that the accident, which caused neurological damage and rendered her 69 percent disabled, unleashed a series of events that would eventually lead her from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle to one of poverty. "It knocked me for a loop," admits Rachel, a 54-year-old divorcee and mother of four, who emigrated in 2001 from Pennsylvania. "Because the injuries were not physical, I could not get the help I needed at first but I was still in immense pain. I couldn't walk and certainly could not work or study Hebrew. There were days when I couldn't even leave my house." While at first the doctors failed to find anything wrong, Rachel eventually reached an expert at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv who carried out a CT scan of her brain and diagnosed the disorder. However, by then it was too late. She had quit her ulpan, given up her part-time work as an English teacher and spent thousands of shekels on private therapy to help her cope with her medical problems. The National Insurance Institute's eventual recognition of her disability also did little to ease the mounting bills and growing economic hardships. "It has been a real struggle," confesses Rachel, who now lives on a meager NIS 1,200 disability allowance plus NIS 600 income support. "We were always comfortable in the States, but now I am forced to live from month to month. I don't have a budget and sometimes I can't even pay my bills. "My biggest challenge now is to get out of my apartment. My landlord has been gracious, he could get $600-$700 for this apartment in North Tel Aviv, but he understands my predicament and has not put the price up at all. Even so, this is a basement apartment with small windows, no air-conditioning and rising dampness; it only makes my medical condition worse." Despite the hardships she has faced over the past five years, Rachel remains upbeat and gets philosophical when asked why she doesn't just let go of her aliya dream: "Even though I feel depressed from time to time and think about just giving it all up, I don't necessarily want to go back to the US, Israel is my home now. "Moving to Israel has been an interesting journey. I know now that I was naïve and I think anyone coming over here should be aware of the difficulties, of the cultural differences and realize that no one really knows what could happen in his life from one day to the next." WHILE RACHEL'S absorption experience might be extreme, one in five Israelis live below the poverty line and even middle-class immigrants from North America or other English-speaking nations still run the risk of falling into the poverty trap. According to the annual poverty report released earlier this month by the NII, close to 1.65 million people were below the poverty line - earning less than NIS 1,990 a month per individual or NIS 5,000 for a family of four - last year and although that is only a slight increase over the previous year's figures, it is a number that politicians and activists have not managed to reduce in the past four years. More alarmingly, the report also found that poverty among children is growing and today one in every three children is considered poor. There were also increases in the number of working poor (families whose household head is employed but whose dependents still live below the poverty line) and in financial distress among families with four or more children. Though the report does not break down percentages of poverty among various ethnic or immigrant populations, and no studies as yet have been undertaken on the economic situation in the Anglo community, Moshe Lefkowitz, director of Meir Panim, one of the many non-profit organizations devoted to feeding and caring for the needy, says that English-speaking immigrants are certainly among those who visit the organization's soup kitchens and second-hand furniture warehouses. "If you come to Beit Shemesh or Modi'in you will certainly meet some of these families," he says, adding that poverty among English-speaking immigrants is still fairly new but is growing. "We not only see many [Anglo] families but we also get requests from donors in the US who want to give to certain families living below the poverty line." Tzvi Richter, director of social services at aliya organization Nefesh B'Nefesh, also says that poverty among English-speaking immigrants is a problem. But after two years of working in the field, he has not noticed a marked rise in the number of people struggling financially. "Poverty is a problem but it is certainly less of a problem among Anglo olim," he says, adding that official Nefesh B'Nefesh figures show that 94 percent of the program's participants are employed. But with the number of working poor on the rise, he does acknowledge that being employed is not always a solution to escaping the poverty trap. In fact, a study released by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry this week notes that new immigrants earn less than native or veteran Israelis, with 41% in the NIS 5,000 or less income bracket compared to just 13% among veterans. The average salary is NIS 7,500. "We talk to people about finding additional ways to make money," explains Richter. "In the US, people are used to having one job and surviving on that, but here it is sometimes necessary to have two jobs or something else on the side to bring in additional income. "There is also an issue of both partners having to work here. In many of the families that come on Nefesh, only one parent is employed, but we explain to them that in Israel it is sometimes necessary for both parents to work in order to survive." Richter notes other factors that can lead immigrant families onto the dreaded path of economic decline. "One of the main pitfalls is not properly understanding the system or learning how to budget here," he says. "Some people find it difficult to get a handle on their expenses. Sometimes people get caught out with unforeseen expenses or have medical issues not covered by the health basket that can also sink into a financial hole." STEVE, WHO moved here in 2003 with his wife and three children, knows what it s like to live on the other side of that poverty line. While he has now found a job, his unemployment for the first two years after aliya meant that the family had to struggle to cover its daily expenses and constantly worried whether it had made the right decision to leave Los Angeles. "We always wanted to come to Israel for religious and Zionist reasons," says Steve, 46, who has a graduate degree and 13 years' experience working in a nursing home and lives in the North. "I thought that I'd come here with a job already set up. But I soon realized that my Hebrew was just not strong enough, especially to deal with all the administrative details of the work." He started to search for alternative work, but it soon became clear that the family would have to survive on his wife's part-time income as an occupational therapist and be forced to dip into its savings. "We were short about NIS 5,000 a month. Our income just did not cover our expenses and we certainly could not afford to buy a house," he admits. "We had never had to face that kind of stress in the US. It made our children very nervous. Even though it has been okay for the last year or so, we still watch what we spend very closely and look at life very differently. "When our olim do not have resources from abroad, they can really end up struggling," observes Yanina Musnikow, a social services counselor for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. "In the first years of aliya, new immigrants do receive a basket of benefits and free services from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, but it is really not enough for people to live on and sometimes the skills or experiences an immigrant arrives with are not applicable here." Musnikow, who advises olim from Ashdod to Metulla on their government rights and benefits, says that only a very small percentage of Anglos are living below the poverty line. "I don't think this is a big issue for our community," she says. "There is definitely a lowering of standards of living but the majority of American Jews arriving here accept that they will have, for example, a smaller apartment or only one car per family." "This is an aliya of choice," echoes Richter. "People won't come if they think there is a chance their children will be subjected to poverty." As for those who do choose to come, he says there is some concern about how a significantly lower income will support a family. "People ask, 'How can a salary of NIS 6,000 be enough? How do we do it? How do we pay our mortgage?' We try to help them find an answer to that secret, but admit that it isn't always easy to survive in Israel. "Moving to Israel, people go through a lifestyle change and they have to adjust their expectations. Even though Nefesh B'Nefesh has taken away some of the bureaucracy and made the process of aliya more manageable, moving here is never easy."

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