As the National Insurance Institute (NII) released its poverty report covering the second half of 2004 and the first half of 2005, few were optimistic that Israel's improving economy had succeeded in pulling up the weakest sectors of Israeli population. The pessimism proved largely correct, as Deputy Social Affairs Minister Avraham Ravitz presented the figures, which showed continued increase in the number of Israelis - including 24,500 children - dropping below the poverty line.
Ravitz presented the report Monday, slamming politicians for "using the poor for personal and party interests" by offering solutions whose "intentions are not genuine" instead of "bringing about real solutions to the problem." Ravitz also attacked "economic theories" practiced by the government - implying mainly the Finance Ministry - for engaging in impractical solutions while the poor continued to become poorer.
"We try to suggest solutions, but economists are stronger than we are. We are not economists. We are field workers," Ravitz said.
As was expected, children constituted the demographic group hardest hit by poverty during the period examined by the report.
The period saw an increase of the total number of impoverished children from 713,600 in 2004 to 738,100, with over 2,000 children on average becoming impoverished every month. Over one-third - 34.1 percent - of all children in Israel fall below the poverty line. This marks a 50 percent increase in impoverished children over the past seven years, since the 1998 poverty report was released.
The one key sector that noted improvement in the 2004-5 period was among the elderly, but Ravitz said that there were "no great secrets to this success" and that the improvement was attributable to the fact that the government had decided to raise pensions, which enabled the elderly to rise above the poverty line.
On the employment front, the report indicated a small margin for optimism. A slight decrease - 9% - was noted in the number of impoverished families in which nobody of working age was actually employed, but only 58% of those impoverished workers were employed in full-time jobs.
Additionally, while employment opportunities increased - particularly in the commercial and services sector (especially hotels and food services) - the low salaries paid in those sectors meant that many of the working poor remained below the poverty line.
Yigal Ben-Shalom, director-general of the NII, said that it was too early to determine if the small increase in employment levels was due to the partial implementation of the Mehalev welfare-to-work program, initiated by then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
As the report was being presented, a handful of social workers stood in the rain outside the Labor and Social Affair Ministry, waiting for Ravitz to emerge.
"When we tried to bring many social workers today, they were simply too disillusioned to come. We came here two years ago, three years ago, and nothing happens with the budget. The situation just becomes worse and worse," said Itzik Perry, chairman of the Organization of Social Workers.
"One government body does really carry out studies and important research, but a second government body - the Finance Ministry - does nothing with it," Perry said. "The people at the NII really do excellent research, but it's too bad that nothing further is done with the report. Next year, they should try and give up this one-day 'date' with the media. Don't write the report, because nobody does anything with it."