The government has done little to reduce poverty rates over the past year, experts and professionals working in the social welfare field told The Jerusalem Post on Monday following the publication of the National Insurance Institute's Annual Poverty Report for 2008.
Some 420,100 families, or 1,651,300 Israelis, lived below the poverty line in 2008, compared to 1,630,400 in 2007, according to the NII report. Last year, 783,600 of these were children, an increase from 773,900 the previous year.
Even though the number of poor people increased slightly, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and NII director-general Esther Dominissini pointed out at a Tel Aviv press conference that despite the recession, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line had actually fallen from 23.8% in 2007, to 23.7% in 2008.
"Even though there might have been a percentage reduction, the fact is that Israel still has a very high percent of people living in poverty," Dr. Roby Nathanson from the Macro Center for Political Economics in Tel Aviv told the Post. "There has been almost no change to the overall picture."
He highlighted that Israel's poverty rates, according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures, were comparable to countries such as Mexico, and were among "the highest in the developed world.
"We have achieved maximum social distress. If these figures get any higher then there will be a complete catastrophe here," said Nathanson, adding that the NII report showed that "we have done nothing to reduce poverty in this country."
Despite the global economic crisis, which has caused thousands of Israelis to be laid off over the past year, the poverty rates barely changed between 2007 and 2008. Among the country's seniors, 22.7% were living below the poverty line in 2008; in Israel's weakest socioeconomic sector, Arab Israelis, the report found that the rate of poor families had fallen from 56% in 2006, to 49.4% last year. For single-parent families the drop was from 29.8% in 2007, to 28.8% in 2008.
Itzhak Perry, head of the Social Workers Union, criticized the report, saying that it did not accurately reflect the reality on the ground.
"From the lines outside social welfare offices, it is clear to see that many families have been seriously hurt by the economic crisis. Either they have lost their jobs or have had their salaries significantly reduced, suddenly finding themselves joining the millions of others already living below the poverty line," Perry said. "These families do not appear on the NII annual Poverty Report, because its figures are from 2008 and the recession only started in the last months of that year."
"Comparing figures from one year to the next only means that we miss the larger picture," said Dr. Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research and an economics professor at Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy. "There is a poverty problem here that has been brewing for the past 10 years and it needs to be addressed at the core. Many people are not receiving the tools they need to find work in a modern market and there needs to be a change in our national priorities, with a focus on education."
He added: "Focusing on whether the poverty rates went up or down slightly is like putting a band aid on the entire problem when really it's the root causes of poverty that need to be addressed."