Alternative Poverty Report highlights poorest of the poor

Ethics @ Work: Every year at this time the Latet organization, which distributes food baskets to needy families, publishes its Alternative Poverty Report.

Marc Israel Sellem (photo credit: Poverty 521)
Marc Israel Sellem
(photo credit: Poverty 521)
Every year at this time the Latet organization, which distributes food baskets to needy families, publishes its Alternative Poverty Report. The report receives a lot of media attention due to the shocking and extreme picture it paints of poverty in Israel.
The headline in one paper screamed: “70% of Israel’s poor lack money for food.”
Another proclaimed that among poor children, “75% skip meals because of their [financial] state.” The report presents disturbing details of deprivation and social exclusion among Israel’s poor.
These sensational claims virtually invited refutation, which were readily supplied.
One news site cited the counterclaim of a think tank that refuted the claims, implying that the report lacks merit because only the relative state of the poor declined, but their absolute standard of living continues to rise.
The truth of the report is somewhere in between. The report does make some sensationalist and rather far-reaching claims.
But its main objective is not statistical, and it does succeed in providing important information on some of Israel’s most unfortunate citizens who are not well-represented in the official poverty statistics.
Some of the claims certainly strain credibility.
The report claims that half of poor families suffer from nutritional insecurity, “meaning that they and their children lack the basic food needed for balanced and proper subsistence.” Given that about 20 percent of families are defined as “poor,” that would mean 10% of Israeli households suffer from inadequate nutrition.
If we examine figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, we find that the amount spent on food by the poorest 10% of the population is roughly comparable to the amount spent by middle-class households only 10 years ago. That makes it hard to believe that they are lacking the basic foods needed for balanced and proper subsistence.
If the authors of the report have evidence for this amazing claim, they will have to provide better documentation than a shadowy reliance on a combination of “sources of information, field research among the aid organizations, sample checks among local social services, and various figures from the statistics bureau, National Insurance Institute and the alternative poverty report of Latet.”
Overall, the statistics give a revealing picture of a rather narrow but still important group of poor people: the poorest of all.
The sample population is those who receive food parcels on a regular basis from Latet or similar organizations. It is clear that these individuals, the poorest of the poor, are not representative of all families whose declared income happens to be below the poverty line. But it is for this very reason that it is important to be aware of their situation.
The officially reported poverty rate does not say anything about poverty depth. If the poverty line for a family of four is NIS 5,800 a month, than a family making NIS 5,799 and one making only NIS 1,800 are equally poor. But even someone rather indifferent to 400,000 families earning only NIS 5,799 – which is enough for shelter and nutrition – may be moved by the much smaller number of families making only NIS 1,800 and dependent on food parcels from volunteers.
Many of the figures sound both plausible and important. The report claims that 75% of the sample occasionally had to skip meals because of their financial status; the statistics bureau’s social survey from 2003 found a number not far different: 14% of all those surveyed, which would amount to about 75% of the poor.
Even if this figure is exaggerated somewhat, it is important to be aware that among the poorest of the poor, skipping meals due to poverty is a familiar reality.
Latet writes that the report “seeks to present the human face of poverty and the poor that hides behind the dry figures and statistics published by government institutions.” In other words, the report is not trying to refute or extend the work of the statistics bureau or the NII.
As a representative picture of the state of poor Israelis – i.e., the spin adopted by some of the news outlets and by some claims in the report itself – it is not very useful. But as a way of bringing us face to face with the difficult situation faced by some of the poorest of the poor – the stated goal of Latet – the Alternative Poverty Report includes valuable information.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).