Haredim and soldiers at western wall.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While birth rates in most of the countries in the developed world are shrinking from generation to generation to less than two children per family, in Israel, the average sits at more than three. Israel’s demographic growth rate is the highest among the developed countries, and the population density in Israel is already 1,000 times the OECD countries. Forecasts indicate that by 2048, the country’s population density will be as high as that of Bangladesh, and while currently our economy is thriving, that growth may not be sustainable.
The composition of the population has a significant influence on the economy, and therefore the changes expected must be of concern to everyone in our country, but in particular to those who “carry the burden” – the Israeli tax-payers. The obvious question at this point must be: what are the implications of the changes expected in the next 50 years?
In 2017, for the first time since the state was founded, less than half of 18-year-olds joined the IDF.
This is mainly because of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors, the two sectors that are in constant growth and that don’t participate in this national duty. This statistic reflects the demise of the “People’s Army” introduced proudly by David Ben-Gurion in 1948. De facto, the concept is quickly disappearing, even though de jure no one decided to cancel it.
The current situation is that we are running against the clock just to stay in the same place. The Israeli economy, the start-up nation, is developing and advancing, but I do not find any logic in the fact that one, shrinking, part of the population carries on its shoulders the growing, second part, who don’t pay taxes and are not active participants in the Israeli economy and labor market. The secular, the religious, and even the Arab society perform family planning based on economic considerations. The ultra-Orthodox however, do not carry out such planning at all. While in the 1950s the average number of children per ultra-Orthodox family was two-and-a-half, now it is almost seven.
Beyond the social and cultural change and expansion of inequality, there are other aspects to such population growth – Israeli infrastructure is not ready to support such a population, as is already apparent in the worsening traffic epidemic, soaring housing prices and crowded hospitals and classrooms.
At first glance, it appears that there is no solution to this problem. After all, as a democracy, we cannot restrict by law the number of children per family, or introduce some similarly creative policy. However, there is a solution. Demography is not a natural, uncontrollable phenomenon but is actually reflective of government policy. For instance, in 2003, when child allowances were cut, the number of births in the ultra-Orthodox sector dropped dramatically. Therefore, if we really want to reach the standard of living of the OECD countries to which we aspire, or at the very least to prevent an inevitable explosion, the state must adopt a policy that will compel part of the population to make more economical calculations when it comes to family planning.
An example of such a policy would be to limit allowance to two children, or alternatively implement differential allowance for the benefit of the first children, in contrast to the current situation in which allowance actually grows per child. Families need to make a conscious and rational decision that they can financially sustain independently. The middle class is already carrying the burden, but in another 15 years, even if they are willing, will they be able to do so?The author is a Law student at IDC Herzliya and a fellow of the Argov program for leadership and diplomacy.