More than 433,000 families, or one in every five Israeli households, received help from social welfare services in 2009, marking a dramatic increase over the past decade, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry reported on Tuesday.
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Although caseloads have nearly doubled in the past 10 years, resources and employment conditions for those at the forefront of dealing with issues such as children at risk, domestic violence, poverty and struggling minority populations have not been adjusted accordingly, said Welfare and Social Services Ministry Isaac Herzog, effectively launching a battle with the Treasury to improve the conditions for thousands of social workers.
In response to the report, which reflects figures from 2009, the Social Workers Union said that numbers had increased even more significantly in the 12 months because of the economic crisis.
A spokesman for the union said that unless demands for better salaries and work conditions were met in the coming weeks, welfare workers would strike.
“[Social workers] are at the forefront of Israel’s social safety net,” said Herzog, who last month published a book highlighting socioeconomic problems in Israel and called on society to give these issues as much attention as it gives the security situation.
“This report is proof that social security is of equal importance to national security,” said the minister, adding that the data also supports the call to change employment conditions, including salary levels, for social workers, who sometimes take on up to 400 cases per person and often fail to reach all those who need help.
According to the report, which was compiled by the ministry’s Research, Training and Planning Division, the figures rose from 298,000 families receiving welfare treatment in 1998 to more than 433,000 families in 2009.
The numbers also showed an increase in the number of active cases – both families and individuals – from 345,000 in 1998 to around 500,000 in 2009.
David Golan, spokesman for the Social Workers Union, told The Jerusalem Post that these figures did not accurately show further increases from 2010, which saw a growing number of middle-class families fall below the poverty line and working people fail to make ends meet.
He also said that increasing social welfare legislation meant social workers were obligated to deal with new laws, often taking on bigger workloads without being adequately compensated for it.
“This is a battle that has already started with the Finance Ministry,” Golan said.
“An increase in salaries for social workers is of utmost importance but, sadly, it is falling on deaf ears.”
Golan said that the union was seriously mulling sanctions, possibly within the next few weeks, if the Treasury did not come closer toward meeting the social workers’ demands.
“We have already been in discussions for nearly two months and the gap between our demands and what they want to give us are still very wide,” he said. “Unless we see attempts to reduce those gaps soon, we will have no choice.”
A Finance Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that talks had been taking place between the Social Workers Union and its Department of Salaries and Labor Agreements.
“The union received a serious offer to increase salaries and we are waiting for follow up on the subject,” she said.
The Welfare and Social Services Ministry report also listed key reasons people sought help in 2009, with many applicants needing attention for more than one problem.
Difficulties parenting or behavioral problems with youth accounted for 35.2 percent of all case files; poverty or unemployment made up 34.4%; 33.3% dealt with elderly people considered at risk; while disabilities, both mental and physical, comprised 31.9% of case files.
Violence against children or domestic violence in general were 4.1% of the cases; and addictions, prostitution or imprisonment accounted for 3.6%.
The report also noted a disproportionately high percentage of single-parent families turning to the social services.
Even though single-parent families only make up roughly 20% of the population, 35% of welfare cases are from that group.
Also cause for concern, the report revealed, is the high number of Ethiopian immigrants needing help. Within the 110,000-strong community, the report found that 61.4% had open files with social services, and even among those in the second generation, the chances of them having met with a social worker were twice as high as for those outside the community.
The report noted that other immigrant communities were less likely to have contact with the social services.
“This report reflects the ministry’s policy to create maximum transparency of its services,” said Welfare and Social Services Ministry director-general Nachum Itzkovitz. “This report will help us focus on the needs of certain populations and developing programs accordingly.”