Innovative strategies to reduce poverty

In the past few years, poverty has become a headline issue in the Israeli media, in line with the growing awareness that poverty is a persistent and pervasive social problem.

April 15, 2015 21:59
3 minute read.

A homeless man lies on the street.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In the past few years, poverty has become a headline issue in the Israeli media, in line with the growing awareness that poverty is a persistent and pervasive social problem that casts a big shadow over the “start-up nation.” A recent OECD report found that Israel has the highest poverty rate among developed nations, with over 20 percent of households living in poverty. The election campaigns of several political parties emphasized the issue, notably the Zionist Union, Kulanu, Meretz and Shas – the latter of which created “The Invisible People” campaign.

But looking beyond the election hype and newspaper headlines, we see a gloomy picture. Dealing with poverty is still discussed almost exclusively in terms of individual misfortune, rather than a matter of social concern that stems from the deeply-rooted disparities within Israeli society. Most of the existing solutions take the form of allowances, income or rent support, subsidies and so on. This approach increases the gaps instead of closing them, since the intended beneficiaries often find it hard to realize their rights and get the assistance they are entitled to.

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This situation has led to the proliferation of charities and welfare organizations, some filling the vacuum left by the state and others cooperating with it. But in most cases, their activity doesn’t touch the root causes of poverty, only some of its symptoms.

The Elalouf Committee to Fight Poverty has adopted for the first time a new, comprehensive view of poverty.

To achieve social change, its report called for national responsibility and solutions that are community-oriented, focus on the family and build infrastructure.

The committee also proposed a number of operative action items, such as the establishment of centers to help people realize their rights, and early childhood centers.

Unlike handing out food and medications, working at the community level could give many families the tools to escape the cycle of poverty and decrease their dependence on social welfare services. But so far no practical steps have been taken in this direction.

The Finance Ministry is currently prepared to fund only one eighth of the total cost of implementing the committee’s recommendations, estimated at NIS 7 billion to NIS 8b. Without a radical change in policy by the new government, the report may become just a dead letter.

Tackling poverty effectively requires a concerted effort of several government ministries: education, welfare, health, housing, transportation – and obviously, finance. Instead of one-dimensional, local remedies, they should adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective that looks at society as a whole and suggests structural changes along with specific solutions. Without dealing with national issues such as the cost of living, public transportation and access to education, even families who get the most intensive support will not be able to break out of poverty.

An initiative that could promote a holistic action is the establishment of a national authority to fight poverty under the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, with representatives of all the relevant ministries. The proposed authority will coordinate the inter-ministerial activity, define areas of responsibility, and advance reforms and legislation to increase social-economic mobility and decrease inequality.

It will also monitor the progress of the different programs and record their outcome.

In order to succeed in reducing poverty, we must take bold steps that recognize its social significance and the need to join forces and pool resources to create long-term change.

The new government, regardless of its composition, should commit to a social agenda that takes a radically different approach to combating poverty, and apply its full force to deal with this appalling phenomenon.

The author is the general director of the Rashi Foundation.

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