The High Court of Justice issued a temporary restraining order against a Shas party plan for distributing food vouchers to families with many children – an act that the court found was discriminatory because it would have largely benefited ultra-Orthodox (haredi) families while excluding Holocaust survivors and single-parent families.
The vouchers were initiated by Shas leader MK Arye Deri who was barred by the High Court from serving as interior and health minister because of his criminal convictions of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and was jailed in 1999 for a three-year sentence. Last year, he was forced by the court to leave his two posts because of his criminal convictions and violations of his plea-bargain conditions.
The vouchers were meant by Deri to grant NIS 2,400 a month to large families, after he made the idea a major part of his election campaign.
Approximately 16% of Israeli families suffer from food insecurity, with 21% living below the poverty line. A new study by Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies investigated the central policy tool adopted by Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with food insecurity – the distribution of food vouchers.
The center is an independent, non-partisan, socioeconomic research institute that provides decision-makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets, and economic policy.
Who actually received the food vouchers?
THE STUDY found a substantial gap between the number of families that received food vouchers and the number living below the poverty line. In Arab localities, and primarily in Bedouin localities, there was a large negative gap, while in haredi communities there was a positive gap – that is, there were more families receiving food vouchers than there were living below the poverty line in these areas. This, wrote researchers Prof. John Gal, Ori Oberman, and Nir Kaidar, “raises a suspicion of clientelism – an allocation of public resources by politicians aimed at increasing political support.”
Food insecurity is a global phenomenon, and its relation to poverty is widely accepted. In an effort to deal with it, welfare states grant benefits and operate a variety of assistance systems such as hot meals in schools and the distribution of food baskets or food vouchers, they wrote.
The steps taken here included the establishment of a National Council for Food Security, the provision of hot meals in schools, Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry support to non-profit organizations that distribute food, and the ministry’s Food Security Initiative that helped over 30,000 families in 2022.
In addition, during COVID, the Interior Ministry ran a program distributing food vouchers that assisted some 354,000 families. It came under a great deal of criticism that has been rekindled following plans to renew the program in the following days.
The study examines the effectiveness and fairness of the food voucher program and its implementation in dealing with food insecurity, focusing on the local level and the interface between the distribution of food vouchers and the incidence of poverty.
In the haredi cities of Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, and Beit Shemesh, the share of families receiving vouchers was greater than the number of families living below the poverty line; in Arab, and Bedouin localities in particular, the opposite was the case.
The program was budgeted at NIS 700 million in 2021 during the COVID-19 crisis and was administered by the Interior Ministry. Food-voucher distribution was carried out in three stages with the first distribution carried out in the week before Passover and the elections for the 24th Knesset. The amount received by each family depended on the number of household members. In each stage, the head of household and his/her partner received a credit of NIS 300 each, and additional family members were each credited with NIS 225, up to a maximum per household of NIS 2,400.
The Interior Ministry allowed the local authorities to create a database, ensuring uptake of the benefit and providing information for those eligible. The localities were responsible for identifying eligibility based on criteria set by the ministry: that the resident was eligible for at least a 70% reduction in arnona (municipal taxes ) due to low income; or that the resident was a senior citizen receiving income support and was eligible for a 100% reduction in municipal taxes; or that the monthly income of the household was not greater than the threshold allowed the ministry. The ministry set the eligibility levels for the last of these so that the marginal income per family member, for a family of up to four members, was far below that of the poverty line (that is, a lower level of eligibility than would be prescribed by the poverty line), and for a family of six or more, it is above (a less stringent criterion). That meant a clear preference given to larger families.
THE STUDY found an average negative gap of approximately 10% between the share of families receiving assistance and the share of families living below the poverty line. In those localities with non-haredi Jewish populations, the negative gap was close to nine percent, and in Arab localities, the gap was close to 14% – that is, fewer families living below the poverty line in the Arab localities were eligible for food vouchers.
The largest gap was found in Bedouin localities and was close to 28%.
In contrast, in haredi communities, the gap was positive at about two percent on average – that is, more haredi families received food vouchers than the number of families in those municipalities living below the poverty line. According to the researchers, Jerusalem tops the list of disadvantaged towns that received some 19,000 fewer food vouchers than the number it would have received according to poverty-line indicators, while Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, and Beit Shemesh head the list of towns that received more vouchers than the number of families living below the poverty line.
Clientelism is a phenomenon in which politicians use their power to distribute resources to gain political support. The phenomenon is known worldwide and is widespread, primarily in developing countries.
In Israel, it was common practice during the period of the large Jewish immigration after 1948, and in the past few decades it has characterized the operation of sectoral parties. In an international comparison, the level of clientelism in Israel today is similar to that in Italy and the US, higher than what is common in welfare states like Germany and Sweden, and lower than in Hungary and Turkey.
The study findings raise fears that there is a trend towards a return to clientelism in Israel.
Gal, chairman of the Taub Center Welfare Policy Program, said that “while over the years the level of clientelism in Israel has declined, the examination of the food voucher program operated in 2021 raised fears of clientelism.”
“A program intended to benefit those living with food insecurity should most appropriately be led by the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry under whose responsibility this falls. In addition, available data should be relied upon to ensure an efficient distribution of resources, and an intervention program should be constructed that offers a long-term solution rather than just a one-time response,” said Kaidar, Taub’s director-general and a previous deputy director-general of the Welfare Ministry.
“In our view, continuous financial assistance accompanied by professional support focusing on those families suffering from food insecurity is far more effective than the one-time distribution of food vouchers. They also have a greater chance of helping families rise above their current situation. If it is decided to renew the food voucher program as planned, from 2024 forward, the criteria for eligibility should be changed such that the population living below the poverty line and suffering from food insecurity receives the benefit,” he added.
Solutions to Deri's vouchers
The authors suggested three possible alternatives to Deri’s vouchers – renewing the food-voucher program with revisions that provide sufficient long-term food vouchers for the population that is clearly identified as suffering from nutrition insecurity; expanding the Food Security Initiative; or expanding the social security program for vulnerable populations. All of this should be done while maintaining a number of principles, among them, defining the goals of the program and the target population (families living below the poverty line suffering from financial distress or families suffering from food insecurity); determining the implementing agent (national government, local authority, or an external agency); and ensuring high uptake of the benefit.