It has become almost an annual ritual. Each year at this time, the National Insurance Institute releases poverty figures, inevitably telling us that things are dire. For a few days the grim news resonates in televised images of empty refrigerators and dominates public discourse... until it is overshadowed by the next sensation.
As expected, the statistics just published for 2008 paint a bleak picture. Approximately 420,100 families, or 1,651,300 individuals, are defined as poor.
The fact that the figure hasn't changed much since 2007 - despite severe recession and many thousands of layoffs during 2008 - hasn't inspired even grudging optimism among hand-wringing commentators and welfare professionals. Predictably, the various Social Affairs Ministry officials, NII spokespersons, academic experts and other specialized poverty activists have focused on the empty half of the glass and concluded that the government has done too little to reduce poverty rates over the past year, and that things are worse than they appear: The figures, in their estimation, fail to accurately reflect the true dimensions of hardship and misery in Israeli society.
Israel, some have been saying, is disgraced by the worst poverty among all developed nations, putting us even behind the likes of Turkey and Mexico.
But amid the acutely inauspicious economic circumstances, the figures actually point to relative stability, and are not too great a cause for populist outrage and finger-pointing.
Consistently missing from the annual poverty report hype is the caveat that each society sets its own criteria for gauging poverty. Our yardstick is distorted. The NII doesn't measure objective disadvantage as much as comparative incomes. There is a difference.
POVERTY IS not defined here by what a person lacks but, rather, by how his income compares to that of others. In Israel, "poverty" is anything under half the median income. Thus, even in good years, when the average national standard of living rises considerably and everyone, including the poor, does better, poverty statistics predicated on median income figures are unlikely to reflect any improvement. Indeed, the reverse is true. As median income increases, so the comparative poverty appears to deepen. Needless to stress, such appearances are misleading.
Essentially, the NII assesses socioeconomic differences rather than actual deprivation. Difficult as it may be for some to acknowledge, differences in income levels are only to be expected in free market economies, as distinct from assorted people's republics where no differences may be admitted.
Moreover, differences, even marked ones, are unavoidable vis-a-vis those segments of society - like the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities - where families are large regardless of income or where not all income is truthfully declared. It is instructive to note that 58% of families with five children or more are defined as poor, versus only 18% of families with three or less children. It is likewise instructive to note that there is reduced poverty in the Arab sector which closely correlates with lower birthrates.
Serially guilt-tripping society isn't a cure but a deformation. If anything, the problem is aggravated by those who generate expectations that taxpayers owe everyone a living, and even a high standard of living.
As things stand, the rawest of deals are meted out to those for whom jobs aren't a plausible alternative - the old, ill and disabled. As a society, we ought to be ashamed when senior citizens need to choose between medication and nutrition. Benefits to those who cannot help themselves must take precedence. There's no disputing that resources available for benefits are shrinking. The challenge is to allocate what's available in the most equitable way possible.
These are uneasy truths for institutions or organizations whose vested interests are best served by making things seem inordinately dismal in order to agitate for higher budgets. That agitation, however, loses legitimacy when it habitually seeks to influence public opinion via claims which are far from straightforward. When the true nature of the poverty figures isn't forthrightly disclosed, the NII and associated presumed advocates for the poor undermine their own credibility.