Breaking the cycle of poverty

An interview with Ya’akov Margi, Israel’s Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs.

 Ya'akov Margi, Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs (photo credit: Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs)
Ya'akov Margi, Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs
(photo credit: Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs)

In a wide-ranging interview with the Jerusalem Post, Ya’akov Margi, Israel’s Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs, shared his thoughts about how the State of Israel – the government and its citizens – can work more effectively to help extricate those in need from the cycle of poverty, help solve the issues of food insecurity, and allocate additional resources for those in need.

Margi is not content with the current state of affairs. Sitting in his Jerusalem office in the Ministry, he leans forward in his chair and quotes a well-known Biblical verse – “For the poor shall never cease out of the land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11). “Poverty may never be completely eradicated,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that we have to have millions in Israel living below the poverty line.”

According to the most recent report of the Latet NGO,  over 2.6 million Israelis live in poverty, which amounts to nearly 27.8 percent of the country’s population. More than 680,00 Israelis are living in nutritional insecurity, according to that same study. What can be done to solve this pressing issue?

Margi, a member of the Shas political party that is part of the ruling coalition, first became a member of Knesset in 2003.  He served as Minister of Religious Services from 2009 until 2013 and was appointed Minister of Welfare and Social Affairs in 2022. 

In his view, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs cannot solve the issue with money alone. “We are not interested in giving out fish,” he says. “We want to give out fishing rods.” Margi wants Israel’s government to develop the tools and ability to solve these problems on a long-term basis. As part of the government’s coalition agreements, he explains, a commitment was made for the creation of a special governmental authority to fight poverty. The proposed national authority on poverty would research the issues and causes behind poverty, prepare plans, and recommend action to the government. “The government has the ability to put its finger on the most painful wounds affecting Israeli society,” says Margi. He adds that the proposed authority would be an independent body that would operate through the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services.

Margi says that the bill for the creation of the national authority on poverty recently passed a preliminary reading and will be brought for a first reading after the Knesset returns from its summer recess. He is optimistic that the bill authorizing its creation will be passed in the next six months and is hopeful that the creation of such a national authority will lead to serious discussions and deliberations that will help reduce the level of poverty in Israel.

In his view, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs cannot solve the issue with money alone.

Turning his attention to private organizations in Israel, such as Meir Panim, that help those in need, Margi says, “The fact that there are organizations such as these in civil society is a great blessing. These organizations improve our society, make us better, and increase solidarity in the country. They are helping to create a better society.” He added that private organizations are frequently better positioned to assist quickly, since they are not tied to the government bureaucracy.

Many of Israel’s poor are confronted with two issues – food insecurity, which occurs when people do not have sufficient quantities of safe and nutritious food – and the inability to break out of the cycle of poverty by finding employment. Which issue should take precedence? Margi says that both are significant and must be addressed simultaneously. “If Hatzalah or Magen David Adom arrives at the scene of a terror attack, and they locate someone who is bleeding and requires surgery, they don’t take them immediately into surgery. First, they stop the bleeding. Food insecurity is an immediate need that must be dealt with, like urgent first aid, and all of the activities of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs to solve issues of food insecurity are joined together with furthering employment prospects.”

He adds that there are many families in Israel where both parents work, yet the family income puts them below the poverty line. “We are attempting to make things easier,” says Margi, “by subsidizing daycare and afternoon daycare programs. We are doing what we can to for those who are working and raising families to make things easier.”

Most important, says Margi, is that those who are in need should never give up hope. “You can stretch out your hand to help someone, but you cannot save them if they don’t give you their hand in return. But if they do stretch out their hand, you can pull them up. We can deal with poverty and help those below the poverty line, but we must do it together. We cannot lose hope.”

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This article was written in cooperation with Meir Panim