Business ethics 88.
(photo credit: )
The poverty polemic in Israel is reaching new, almost unbelievable heights of acrimony this week as Rosh Hashana approaches.
In order to draw attention to its New Year's food drive, the charity organization "Latet" organized a protest involving thousands of paper dummies in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square under the slogan, "A million people donating a million meals for a million people who suffer hunger in silence."
This drew a mildly annoyed response from the prime minister, who observed that the hunger figures are exaggerated, and a sharp response from the chief statistician, Professor Shlomo Yitzchaki, who remarked cynically that "One could say based on observation that there are two million hungry people between five and seven in the evening, mainly those who have not yet eaten dinner."
I have often written about the poverty polemic, which has a serious basis. Social groups and socially-conscious politicians often warn about the high rates of poverty. These critics are correct. The reported poverty rate in Israel is indeed high, one of the highest among the developed countries.
Growth advocates respond that the poverty rate actually measures only income inequality, not any direct measure of deprivation, and in fact the living standard of the poorest families continues to grow. This response is also correct; the poverty line in Israel is defined in relationship to median income, which is continually growing.
Thus, the poverty line is a moving target which is always increasing.
A family is considered poor today at a standard of living that would have been considered comfortably middle class a generation ago. However, this does not automatically imply there is no reason for worry. Other countries also define poverty on a relative scale yet have been successful in achieving much lower rates.
But the Latet figures are so provocative, even bizarre, that they come close to justifying Yitzchaki's somewhat insensitive response. In a wealthy country like Israel, poverty is almost never a reason for hunger. The poverty line in 2006 was over NIS 5,000 for a family of four - hardly a fortune, but well above what is needed to provide adequate nutrition. The Central Bureau of Statistics Web site shows an expenditure breakdown among the lowest income decile (which includes far less than a million people), figures that are totally incompatible with widespread inadequate nutrition. For example, these families are spending only about 20% of their budget on food, including expenditures on meat and poultry comparable to those of wealthier families.
Another food distribution charity publicizes similarly misleading conclusions: "The latest report on poverty statistics, issued in June of 2006 by the National Insurance Institute, reveals there are now 800,000 children living below the poverty line. These children leave for school with empty lunch bags and go to bed hungry. During lunchtime, they look on hungrily and despondently as their friends enjoy a satisfying lunch from the school cafeteria - something they cannot afford. And there's no hot supper waiting for them at home, either."
There are indeed a large number of children living below the poverty line, but no more than a tiny fraction leave for school with empty lunch bags or go to bed hungry. Even among those who do, only a small fraction are unable to afford food; most often other needs are given priority due either to ideological reasons (such as valuing education above nutrition, which is by the way a Jewish tradition) or to family dysfunction as Yitzchaki implied. Of course it is desirable to help these families, but it is not constructive to suggest they are a majority or even a large fraction of children living under the poverty line.
Providing food baskets for needy individuals is a worthy avenue for charity, providing the ultimate safety net for the poorest families. The Rosh Hashana is a good time for us to think of others and ensure that a happy holiday is in the reach of all. But this is a far cry from misleading and provocative statements that give a totally inaccurate and even offensive impression.
Among the many selfless charity organizations dedicated to providing the ultimate safety net for Israel's small but tragic hungry population, there seems to be a small minority whose main hunger is for headlines.
The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.