(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Close to 1.65 million people in Israel lived below the poverty line in 2006 - a slight rise from the previous year, when the figure stood at 1.63 million - according to the National Insurance Institute's (NII) annual poverty report, released Tuesday.
However, the annual report did note an overall decrease in the country's poverty rate as far as the number of poor families, which saw a drop from 410,700 (20.6 percent) in 2005 to 404,400 (20%) in 2006, and the elderly population, in which poverty fell from 24.4% in 2005 to 21.5% in 2006.
"The report shows that we are reaching a point of stability and slight improvement," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog told The Jerusalem Post after presenting the report with NII Director-General Yigal Ben-Shalom.
However, Herzog added that the journey to ultimately eliminating poverty was "only just beginning."
"Now we must start a social offensive," he continued. "We must implement a national program for fighting poverty, including lowering unemployment and introducing negative income tax for low-income families."
What was most alarming about this year's report was the continued growth in the number of children living below the poverty line. In 2004, that figure stood at 713,600, or 33.2%, and climbed to 796,100 (35.8%) two years later.
In short, one in every three Israeli children is poor. The NII's Ben-Shalom said that if the current trend continued, eventually every second child would be living in poverty.
"We are not talking about numbers here," countered Eran Weintraub, director of humanitarian aid organization Latet, which aims to distribute a million food packages to the country's needy ahead of the High Holy Days next week. "Behind the numbers are real people who live in extreme conditions. We are happy that the state has taken notice of the number of poor and hungry people, but we call on [Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] and the ministers of welfare and social services and finance to set up a committee to immediately battle this problem."
Herzog said he believed he had already ensured a slice of the 2008 state budget for the purpose of initiating a national program to fight poverty.
Hanan Porat, director of the charity Orot Hessed, which also provides food aid to the poor, said he blamed the government for the current crisis.
"We have reached a point where this problem must be dealt with at its roots, at the weakest levels in society," he said. "Charities can only take on this responsibility for so much longer."
The report also noted a rise in the number of working poor, or families whose household head is actually employed but who still live below the poverty line. In 2005, that figure was 177,100 families, while in the following year, it rose to 185,500 families.
Yoav Leif, spokesman for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, accused the government of not doing enough to protect the working person's rights and ensuring that employers followed the law.
The growth in financial distress among large families (four or more children) was also noted in the report. According to the figures, 87,300 large families lived below the poverty line in 2005, and that number rose to 96,700 in 2006.
While the report noted overall economic growth in the country during 2006, Herzog pointed out that this improvement did not manage to filter down to the economically weaker segments of the population.
"There is a clear gap between the top tier and the lower levels," he told the Post. "We need a program of negative income to combat this problem."