‘A society that does not care for its poor and vulnerable, does not deal a blow solely to these unfortunate people’s honor and rights, it deals a blow to the state… [and] reneges on its obligation to respect the needs of every human being,” State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote.
A sort of modern-day Jeremiah, Shapira was rebuking our political leaders for failing to perform one of the most basic functions of the enlightened welfare state: to care for its citizens. In 2011, 894,000 Israelis, including 360,000 children, either went a day without food or reduced their food intake over an extended period due to poverty.
The release on Monday of Shapira’s scalding report on food insecurity was well timed. It came just before Passover, a holiday that emphasizes the biblical story of the Jewish people’s slavery in Egypt.
The commandant in Jewish tradition to remember this is meant to teach a moral lesson. Because our ancestors knew the horrors of slavery, subjugation and suffering, we have a special sensitivity to injustice and, therefore, a particularly pressing moral imperative to eradicate it.
Shapira wrote that consecutive governments have relied too heavily on the nonprofit and voluntary sector instead of providing state funding to address this issue. As a result, food aid is insufficient, and the level of aid private charities distribute depends on the ability and willingness of the local population to organize, not criteria such as the severity of the need. Cities and towns that have few or no voluntary organizations tend to be the poorest.
Shapira pointed to near anarchy when it came to attempts at implementing a coherent policy to battle food insecurity. For instance, a task force that was supposed to begin working at the beginning of 2012 did not do so until the beginning of 2013. Even then, insufficient budgets made programs ineffectual.
Relative poverty rates, or the proportion of people living on less than 50 percent of the median salary, are significantly higher in Israel than in the OECD as a whole. In Israel, 21% of the population lives under the poverty line, compared to an OECD average of 11% and an EU average of 9%. At 15.8% of GDP, Israel’s social spending is significantly lower than the OECD average of 21.9%.
Yoram Gabbai, chairman of Pe’ilim Investments and a former Finance Ministry official, said there are two accepted models for battling income insecurity in Western countries, and Israel adheres to neither.
In the US, the state and federal governments use food stamps to combat food insecurity, while in other countries – Israel included until the late 1990s – a combination of child allotments and unemployment payments, as well as universal healthcare and public education, are used to raise up the poor and make it easier for them to buy food and other products and services. But starting more than two decades ago, neoliberal economic theories began to dominate Treasury thinking. The need to cut huge budget deficits resulted in slashing of welfare transfers.
The assumption was that many who could work did not because welfare benefits were so generous.
Many were indeed pushed into the job market, but lacked the requisite skills to find gainful employment. Today official unemployment rates are low but many are employed part time or in low-paying jobs.
Our political leaders and policy-makers must articulate a coherent policy for fighting food insecurity.
One option is to empower organizations that provide food on a regular basis to needy families while keeping in mind the NGOs many limitations.
Another option is to adopt the US model of food stamps. A third option is returning to the welfare state model.
But, as Shapira warned, the present situation of muddled, incoherent social welfare policy cannot continue.
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