For many years, the discourse around our national integrity has focused on national security, foreign relations and the economy. My colleagues and I in the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services believe national security also includes socioeconomic security. Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, in his immortal Altneuland, dealt in great detail with his social worldview. In his words:
“We, in our new society, will not measure a man by his wealth. Let us measure our fellow man by his merits. We will not relinquish our competitive economy, but shall endow all men with equal starting conditions. An individual who has prospered in a selected field will be granted accordingly the ability to provide his descendants and their descendants with the highest fruits of education and to enjoy, for the rest of their lives, an existence free of mortal concerns... In every generation, we start afresh. And so our educational institutions, from primary schools to Zionist colleges, are to be free of charge... It is a great injustice if in our schools young students are distinguished by their ancestors’ wealth. That will be our undoing.”
Now let’s see if Herzl’s vision is today’s reality.
According to the Gini Coefficient – the worldwide standard for social disparity – the proportion of impoverished Israelis is double the average OECD figure.
The OECD states that Israeli public expenses for social services and welfare are 5% lower in GDP standards than the OECD average. If each percent is at least NIS 7 billion, we are dealing with a disparity of nearly NIS 35 billion. For many years, Israeli poverty rates have been around 20% of the population.
The OECD report is a rude wake-up call.
Yes, the social security and tax-collecting systems succeed to some extent in ameliorating Israeli poverty, but they fail to reduce the vast disparities. Indeed, we never truly “begin afresh” as Herzl said.
On the contrary – a recent study by Dr. Momi Dahan concludes that, while available Israeli income per capita has risen, on average, 11% from 2000 to 2008, it has risen 18% for Israelis with the highest incomes. At the same time, it has diminished by 22% for the most impoverished.
This is the true image of Israeli social security, and the situation is inexcusable! As things stand, it is impossible to provide all members of society with equal opportunities. Many areas and groups suffer from low-quality access to education and personal welfare services. There are similarly notable disparities in health care. The most significant disparity exists between Jews and non-Jews in these criteria.
A SOBER analysis discloses the reality. Israel is faced with a clear and present danger of increased violence and individual instability. Our social cohesion is being worn away from the inside. We must face the truth – Israel is fast becoming a more violent society.
I ask you: Who among you can guess how many instances of violence toward children we had last year? The answer is 32,000! How many youths 14 or younger were sexually abused? There were 2,400 known cases, of which 40% involved children under eight.
Perhaps you know how many people are cared for by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services? One million, two hundred thousand! How many new complaints of domestic abuse are filed? Almost 20,000. How many senior citizens are dependant on the ministry? A quarter of a million, out of which 140,000 are considered poor, and sometimes suffer from violence.
Some more troubling data: 1,120 women received shelter from domestic abuse. Our centers for domestic violence prevention received 12,000 new applications. Instances such as the drowned girl, Rose Pizem, the starved ultra-Orthodox infant, the strangled young child, Noa Goldring, the murdered young boy, Leon Kantarov, are quickly becoming merely terrifying milestones.
Tens of thousands of handicapped citizens do not receive the services they are entitled to, and so are often forced to linger in their homes.
Our social services system has become more pressured, and suffers from substantial manpower shortages.
Our problem is that we as a nation love discussing poverty, but lack the same level of affection for the poor. The government finds itself deeply distressed, but is reluctant to provide the means to deal with these phenomena. It increases pensions, yet fixes higher prices for water and staples. The price of water, the most basic consumer product, has risen 25%! I have been shouting from every rooftop at this corruption, to no avail.
While the government speaks of raising wages from the bottom up, it lingers with its plan to collect negative taxes nationwide, which will provide low-wage workers with more available income.
Israeli governments have been saying for years that we must focus resources on the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, especially with regards to female employment, but these initiatives get entangled in legal bogs, despite the enormous potential these groups have for contributing to the economy.
Israeli governments speak loudly of the need to increase available income for single mothers trapped on welfare, yet are unwilling to raise the allowed income threshold which could improve their livelihood.
THE TIME has come to make a stand – do we want real social change? If the answer is yes, then sacred cows must be slaughtered. For example, we must not hesitate to overhaul our tax policies, so that the nation’s capital will permeate all strata of our population. We must also reconsider the scope of our defense budget, with an eye to better defending our social fitness. This commits us to spread additional nets for underaged, senior and destitute citizens. For example, we must expand our national program for endangered youth. We must strive to better enforce our labor laws, and provide employers with concrete incentives for hiring marginalized and insulated groups.
To summarize, we must promote a change in what French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls “The Happiness Standard,” which is based on a new perception of societal welfare.
Sarkozy appointed a leading team of financial specialists, and its report is called “The measurement of economic performance and social progress revisited.” This report claims that the almost religious subjugation to the principle of national expenses – the GNP or GDP – is corruptive. For example, the GNP includes products such as liquor and narcotics, but is completely oblivious of their effects on society.
As a result, the authors offer the “Happiness Standard,” which is based on additional parameters, such as educational achievements, the quality of social services, environmental commitment, and so on. In Davos, Sarkozy even demanded that nations adopt a minimum performance threshold in these fields. This is a revolutionary concept which I endorse wholeheartedly. It may cause a certain stir in the Treasury, but it is a required and vital reform whose time has come.
In other words – we must revisit Herzl’s vision, and his aphorism: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Excerpted from a speech by the minister of welfare and social services at the Herzliya Conference, IDC Herzliya, January 31.