The North has the highest poverty rate of any area in the country except for Jerusalem, and anti-poverty advocates warn that situation could well worsen following the recent war.
Twenty-nine percent of families and 40% of children in the North live under the poverty line, according to the National Insurance Institute's 2005 poverty report, issued Wednesday.
The national average stands at 20.6% of families and 35.2% of children. The overall rate of impoverished Israelis is 26.2%, or 1.6 million people, a rise of 1.7 percentage points from 2004, when the figure was 24.5%.
Jerusalem is by far the poorest city, with 41.7% of individuals below the poverty line and growing. The North, in contrast, improved over the past two years, with the proportion of poor individuals dropping from 33% to 31.6%. But nongovernmental organizations active in the region predicted that the numbers would rise due to the war and its aftermath.
"What we'll see in 2006 won't be better," said Sari Revkin, executive director of Yedid, the Association for Community Empowerment. She pointed to closed businesses, loss of salary and the tremendous toll on self-employed people, who are looking at getting much less government compensation than what they lost in income. Additionally, she said, many recent hires lost their jobs when businesses closed during the attacks and now find that they are still unemployed.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded to the harsh criticism contained in the poverty report by announcing Wednesday night that he would name a new welfare minister by the end of the week. Olmert had been saving the post to be used in enticing United Torah Judaism to join the government. Tensions between UTJ and the coalition have continued to run high, however, and party representatives said they were no nearer to joining the government than they were six months ago.
Knesset rumors pointed to Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ya'akov Edri (Kadima) as the top candidate for the post.
Minister and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said, "I will fight over [social welfare programs] in the 2007 budget. That budget will reflect a genuine war on poverty and not place the hungry child as a secondary priority, behind the fighter jet... You can't put poverty in the freezer."
Defense Minister Amir Peretz (Labor) said, "The financial demands of the Defense Ministry do not come, and will never come, at the expense of resources to alleviate the class inequalities in Israeli society."
"The data reported in the report expose how many people in Israeli society are suffering and how great the injustice is. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the current government rearranged its priorities and implemented a number of activities that were not covered by this most recent report," he said.
MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), who heads the Knesset's Committee on the Rights of the Child and is a member of the Finance Committee, said, "Our children's condition worsens every year. Due to the brutal, extreme cut in child allowances, Israel ranks as one of the countries with the lowest stipends for children.
"The data in [the poverty report] indicate that empty slogans about moving people from living on allowances to finding jobs aren't enough. The labor market has turned into a slave market and work-weary parents, especially single mothers who are sole providers, work hard and are being exploited, just to raise poor children."
MK Nadia Hilu (Labor) said, "How many slaps in the face can the weak population take? This may lead to a social intifada."
"The government has to increase the social budgets, act immediately to aid populations in need, and bring socioeconomic relief to all the country's residents," she said.
Gili Rei, executive director of Commitment to Peace and Social Justice, said the war "put a magnifying glass" on the difficult situation the North has long faced, yet was "neglected" by the state.
"The fact of the matter is that the home front isn't strong," she said, adding that the population in the North was left to rely on private companies and individuals to provide basic assistance during the war. Now, she continued, "these areas will be left to themselves again."
Rei and others urged that the budget cuts planned to pay for the war and compensation not come from social budgets. Several Labor MKs, among others, have complained of unnecessary cuts to these ministries following the war.
"If the country is so-called brave enough to go to into war, it should be brave enough to make changes in the budget," she said.
Rei also decried the trend, highlighted by the report, of poverty among those who have jobs.
Revkin said the North particularly suffers from this phenomenon.
"The economic growth that [former finance minister Binyamin] Netanyahu talked about stopped at the borders of Gush Dan," she declared. "It didn't reach the periphery."
Revkin said even those finding work under frameworks such as the Wisconsin plan were unable to pull themselves out of poverty, largely because the jobs they found were low-paid. She also urged greater enforcement of the minimum wage.
Yoram Sagui Sachs, head of Hevra (Society), which pushes for the government to make social issues a priority, said the report "proves that working is not a key to get out of poverty." He added that the citizens of the North wouldn't be the only ones made poorer by the war. Budget cuts to social programs made in the name of the war would take a toll, he said, as would lost salary for reservists who weren't properly compensated.
"After a war, the poverty numbers get worse," he said.â€¢