As we celebrated Independence Day marking Israel’s 66th birthday, families around the country took to the streets, the parks, and the beaches to celebrate.
The reasons for celebration are many, and as a people, we can pride ourselves on our many accomplishments, from the ingenuity of the pioneers who drained the swamps to the innovation of Israeli hi-tech and industry. But we mustn’t forget that 300,000 families in Israel couldn’t afford to join the party.
Despite the positive image Israel’s economy enjoys, things are not all they seem: Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world at almost 21 percent; the rate at which the number of poor children in Israel increases rose by 60% in the past decade; and 72% of the working-age poor are actually employed. Our research at Latet shows that 95% of those who seek assistance from various non-profits report that they regularly forgo essential needs as they are forced to make painful choices: food for the kids or medication, paying the electric bill or buying books for school.
One in every three children in Israel lives below the poverty line. The words are almost too sterile to capture what is happening in homes all over the country. The phenomenon was better described by a Latet volunteer in Bat Yam. He was making a food-box delivery when a young girl opened the door and invited him in excitedly.
“Mommy, mommy, let’s look in the box. I hope there’s cereal inside. I’m so hungry,” she said.
“I only wished I had made that delivery half an hour earlier,” he said, “so she wouldn’t have felt hunger.”
This volunteer is one of over 6,500 dedicated Latet volunteers in Israel, who give 270,000 hours of service every year. They collect and deliver food, they visit and tend to the elderly, they fix up people’s homes, offer “soup and story” activities at schools and mentor and encourage small business entrepreneurs. They are determined to reduce the problem of poverty in Israel.
There are many reasons for this problem, most of which are the result of a variety of government policies of the past 20 years. The reduction of welfare pensions, a low minimum wage, and failing to impose labor laws on one hand, and raising regressive taxes while reducing progressive taxes on the other, are traits and products of anti-social policy. Add to the mix inaccessibility to public housing, inability to provide proper education for low-income families, and you get a dangerous cocktail that worsens poverty and widens social gaps.
Slowly but surely, our middle class is eroding, and while there are a few who join the upper crust, there far too many whose struggle grows harder and harder.
Most of these new poor are children, and as this trend continues we’ll have to face the grim reality that by failing to act now, we are condemning more and more generations to poverty, and pushing the solution farther and farther away.
The solution lies in a cohesive, budgeted government plan with long-term perspective.
This plan has to first and foremost deal with poverty and social gaps, by involving all government ministries and setting specific goals. There are budgetary goals for the deficit and for growth, there should also be one for the reduction of poverty.
As this nation prepares to celebrate its next Independence Day, let us reflect on its great accomplishments but also on the greatest challenge that remains: helping people achieve financial independence, transforming poverty into prosperity.
The author is resource development manager for Latet, Israel’s leading humanitarian aid organization dedicated to reducing poverty for the sake of a better and more just society by helping Israelis in need, on a universal and egalitarian basis.