In Israel, you can work and still be poor. That was Bank of Israel Gov. Karnit
Flug’s message to the Knesset Finance Committee this week.
rates are obviously high among families where no one works (71 percent), many
one-income households live under the poverty line (25.9%) and even some
two-income households (4.6%) do.
“Poverty among families with one
wage-earner and even with two presents us with a large challenge to raise the
training and skills of those joining the labor force,” she said in her first
appearance before the committee as governor.
Flug focused on some of the
factors that directly influence the number of working poor such as a negative
income tax that is too low and the strong shekel that hurts exports.
it is the Israeli worker’s sorrowfully low productivity that is the main reason
many of us toil but remain poor.
When productivity rates – GDP per hour
of work – are low, salaries are low. According to an analysis by Prof. Dan
Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel based on OECD
figures, productivity per hour in 2012 was $33.7, slightly lower than 2011.
Israel was ranked 26th out of 34 OECD countries.
A number of quite varied
components make up productivity.
Most obvious is the worker’s skills and
But additional factors come into play such as the
technologies used to produce or provide services, the roads used to transport
goods and service providers, and the level of red tape that impedes opening new
businesses, conducting transactions, building offices, hiring and firing workers
and importing and exporting.
Nearly every component that goes into
productivity is in dire need of improvement. While Israelis are relatively well
educated, we have too many attorneys, MBAs and accountants, and not enough
people employed in hi-tech, where productivity is exceptional high.
while Israeli schoolchildren score about average on international scholastic
evaluation exams such as the PISA, there are tremendous gaps between the best
and worst students.
Sectors such as construction and some industries tend
to rely on cheap manpower instead of updating their technologies.
a few state-run sectors such as the Israel Electric Corporation and the ports,
strong unions make it difficult to fire excess manpower, which translates into
lower productivity per worker.
Mind-boggling bureaucracy is part of the
Instead of focusing on production, businesses get bogged down
with red tape. In the real estate sector, a plethora of regulatory bodies such
as the Israel Lands Authority that controls 93% of the land, the Land
Registration Office (“Tabu”) and local planning committees create enormous
A Treasury official said recently on Army Radio that it takes on
average of seven years to receive a construction permit. Opening a business is
also a long process. An OECD report found that it takes 34 days to get a license
for a business in Israel compared to an OECD average of 13 days. In New Zealand
it takes just one day.
Improving productivity is not all of the solution,
Even when there is a rise in productivity, employers do not
necessarily pass on the higher revenue to workers. It used to be that a rise in
productivity led to an equivalent rise in wages. But about a decade ago this
changed. Productivity has grown but wages have remained about the same. Greed
and a problematic business ethic combined with the weakening of trade unions
explain this gap between productivity and wages.
The working poor are a
symptom of much larger and more pervasive economic ills plaguing our country. If
the politicians Flug addressed this week are truly interested in fighting
poverty – including among those who work – in and narrowing the gaps between the
rich and the poor, they need to take a more holistic approach. Not just a bigger
negative income tax and the manipulation of the shekel are in order but also
eradicating unnecessary bureaucracy, introducing more efficient production
technologies, investing more in transportation and improving education for all
sectors of society. Only then will we be able to truly brag of a “Start-up
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