Jerusalem: A city bound by poverty

What are the reasons for the capital's situation, and is there a viable way to improve it soon? The first in a series on Jerusalem’s socioeconomic status.

 ABOUT 41% of Jerusalem families suffer from poverty, compared to about 20% in the rest of the country.  (photo credit: Liba Farkash/Flash90)
ABOUT 41% of Jerusalem families suffer from poverty, compared to about 20% in the rest of the country.
(photo credit: Liba Farkash/Flash90)

As luxury towers go up on every corner, and supermarkets overflow with fresh produce, Many of Jerusalem’s poor are going hungry.

Jerusalem has close to a million residents, is the center of interest for the entire Jewish, Christian and Islamic world, and is an international tourist site – yet it is the city with the largest number of poor and needy residents in the country. 

There are many reasons for this sad situation – social, cultural and economic, including the lack of a proper employment horizon that has been going on for many years. While many efforts have been made in recent years to increase jobs, including in the eastern part of the city and among the ultra-Orthodox sector, the socio-economic structure for most of the city’s residents still prevents more significant and speedy improvement.

Jeanette, a 75-year-old woman who was widowed about a year ago, has to vacate the apartment she and her deceased husband rented several years ago in the city

“My income from pension and social security has been greatly reduced and I can’t continue to pay the rent here,” she explains. Jeanette worked all her life, but her salary was always low, as was her husband’s. They immigrated to Israel 25 years ago, and worked here after making aliyah, but her husband’s death completely changed the picture. 

 WHILE THE shuk overflows with bounty, lines to get Shabbat food baskets grow longer and longer.  (credit: David Cohen/Flash90) WHILE THE shuk overflows with bounty, lines to get Shabbat food baskets grow longer and longer. (credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Rent is not her only problem. Even for current expenses, her children help her, although she says that she lives modestly.

“I don’t buy clothes, I don’t go on vacation, I can hardly buy presents for my grandchildren,” she says on the verge of tears, “but I cannot survive without help, for the first time in my life.”

Aviva (not her real name) refused to meet with me, but she agreed to tell me about her sad situation in an anonymous telephone conversation. “I have a daughter with special needs, and two older sons that I couldn’t send to any summer camp, because I couldn’t afford to pay for it. My daughter is taken care of at her special school, but the boys are stuck at home – my two sons aged 9 and 11 – all day in front of the TV and they don’t do anything else,” she said. 

“I am a single parent, I clean houses and sometimes take care of the elderly. I work hard, but when I go to work, my heart is anxious – because the children are alone at home for such long hours.”

Jeanette’s and Aviva’s difficult situations are just two out of many tens of thousands of similarly stuck citizens of the city who, because their spouse died or because of illness or loss of income while recovering from coronavirus, find themselves in a difficult financial situation, becoming another sad statistic of poverty in the capital.

More food baskets

The many charitable organizations operating in the city tell of a dramatic increase in requests for food baskets from families with many children, and from the elderly. What used to just be a familiar phenomenon before Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, has become an everyday spectacle, as the lines to get a Shabbat food basket are getting longer and longer. 

Clothing, back to school items, and the needs of a bride and groom who have no family or who themselves come from poor families – even in the second or third generation – are also in high demand. Throughout the city, there is an active charity industry, which kneels under the burden of ever-increasing requests for many and varied needs.

Two weeks ago, in a dramatic move, the Welfare Ministry decided to add about 1,400 families, from all streams of the city’s population, to the list of those entitled to receive food baskets or special cards, loaded with enough to shop for food and basic items. A shared concern by charity associations and welfare officials both at the ministry and at Safra Square is that the coming Tishrei holidays will aggravate the situation.

But what are the reasons for this situation – and is there a way to improve it in the foreseeable future?

More poor, fewer working

The population in Jerusalem is characterized by a high level of poverty compared to the rest of the country, according to various indices. There is twice as much poverty among capital families – about 41% compared to about 20% nationwide – and more than half of the city’s children live below the poverty line.

Low participation in the labor force at various ages, whether voluntary as with a large part of the ultra-Orthodox population, or due to cultural limitations – for example regarding Arab women in the eastern part of the city – is one of the main barriers. And above all is the lack of professional training for high-paying jobs, including not being fluent in Hebrew or English. 

Add to those negative immigration (Jerusalemites who move out looking for better jobs), low employment rates among haredim (ultra-Orthodox) men and Arab women, and poverty that is particularly prevalent in families with many children – and all of this paints the sad picture of a city that is almost doomed to a life of continuous poverty, unless there is massive intervention by the state.

Unemployment benefits are also low, due to low salaries in most of the city’s jobs. In March 2021, there were about 48,000 unemployment recipients in Jerusalem, compared to 4,300 in January 2020 – an 11-fold jump. However, according to National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi) data, the average unemployment benefit per day is NIS 166, some 8% lower than the national average.

The same goes for the coronavirus lockdown period, when compensation given by the government was also low in comparison to other cities, since salaries are lower here.

The percentage of Jerusalem beneficiaries out of the national total also rose drastically, almost doubling during that period from 5% to 9%.

Unemployment benefit recipients in Jerusalem in March 2021 were mostly married – about 62% (compared to 54% in the rest of the country) and about 30% were single. In January 2020, the gap was wider, with about 70% married and 18% single. 

In 2020 in the capital, 123,100 families (38%), 416,600 individuals (43%) and 206,900 children (more than half at 53%) lived below the poverty line. The proportion of children living below the poverty line is higher than families, meaning that poverty is especially prevalent among large families.

According to a report of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies (JIPS) published in May 2022, as well as a Central Bureau of Statistics estimate, a quarter of the county’s ultra-Orthodox population live in Jerusalem, making it the city with the largest such population.

Employment rates in Jerusalem are low among the two previously mentioned population groups: ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women. In 2021, only about two-thirds (65%) of prime working age people were employed – a significantly lower rate compared to Tel Aviv (91%) and Haifa (87%). The rate among men in the capital was 70%, and among women, 60%.

Only a quarter (26%) of Jerusalemite Arab women were employed, compared to 82% among Jewish women. In-depth research conducted by JIPS shows that their low rate is related to a number of factors, including: non-recognition of academic degrees from Palestinian institutions, the lack of supporting infrastructure for working mothers (dormitories and kindergartens), lack of work experience, lack of networking (business networks), poor command of Hebrew and English, and cultural barriers.

The JIPS plan

JIPS has issued a detailed plan for in-depth treatment of the problem of poverty in the city, which was submitted to those responsible in both the municipality and the national government. Here are some of its main points:

Social workers and other personal social services providers should seek to build up social capital in poor communities, and develop cooperative efforts for confronting poverty that will include the local leadership in planning and running services.

The Jerusalem Municipality should define a “basket” of personal social services that will be offered to residents in need. It should define the services and assistance to which each resident is entitled, the obligations of the Jerusalem Municipality to provide them, and how they can be acquired. This strategy should serve as a catalyst for changing the law for welfare services. 

It is proposed that a special fund be formed for special needs and for financing debts. The fund will be overseen by a public committee, which will define clear criteria for granting aid. It will have the right to provide low-interest loans for various purposes, and even offer grants where deemed necessary. 

Assuming that a good portion of the city’s residents will have to take jobs close to home – especially those who will be working only part-time – it will be critical to help develop new sources of employment within city limits. Jerusalem should monitor the implementation of the welfare-to-work program recently created in the city. 

The local authorities must ensure that promised services are indeed provided and that rights are upheld – and they should be willing to offer additional employment assistance beyond those required by the program.

The municipality can serve as a provider of support services that may assist the program participants, such as child care, training courses and adult education. 

Another means of encouraging more people to join the labor force, especially women, is the expansion of pre-school child care facilities. The development of child care services at affordable rates will not only facilitate the inclusion of parents of young children into the workforce, but will also be an important way to enrich the children’s development and increase their chance for social mobility. 

Finally, anti-poverty strategies need to focus on a variety of diverse populations with different demographic characteristics, and the cooperation of residents is crucial in designing programs, as is the use of cultural mediators in seeing to their successful realization.

“All of the financial assistance provided by the department is integrated into an expanded envelope and includes intensive professional support with the aim of rescuing the families from the cycle of poverty.”

Safra Square Welfare Administration spokesperson

The city’s response

In response to these findings, the Jerusalem Municipality Welfare Department reported that ”the administration at Safra Square currently treats 96,259 people (36,131 households). In 2021, 8,196 applications for financial aid were received. In the first half of this year [2022], there was a slight decrease in the number of families contacting the department for financial assistance (about 3,300 applications from January to date). However, this does not take into account the 1,400 families added to the special ‘National Food Security’ program two weeks ago.” 

The department works in partnership with the several charity associations in the city, it said, directing needy families and individuals to those who need financial assistance both for the holidays and on an ongoing basis. 

As in every year, the municipality grants assistance of approximately NIS 1,260,000 to corporations and non-profit associations that submit a request for welfare support, as part of the “Food Security” initiative of the Social Affairs Ministry in cooperation with the Eshel Chabad association. 

In parallel, a limited aid system for about 1,500 families operates in the city, which includes the distribution of prepaid cards and food packages. The ministry announced that next year, the aid will be doubled to about 3,000 families. 

The municipality is also promoting a first-of-its-kind pilot, through the social startup “DonateIt” and thanks to a generous donation by the Mayberg Foundation, where about a thousand food baskets will be distributed to needy families in Jerusalem annually for three years.

“All of the financial assistance provided by the department is integrated into an expanded envelope and includes intensive professional support with the aim of rescuing the families from the cycle of poverty,” according to a spokesman for the Welfare Administration at Safra Square. 

To this end, the division operates a variety of programs, including: accompaniment in centers for the fulfillment of rights, workshops for family budget management, integration into employment and more,” he said. “In the past year, as part of poverty relief programs, the division accompanied about 3,500 families and helped them deal with their daily financial difficulties.” ❖