Israel’s middle class slides into poverty

Nearly 2 million Israelis are living below the poverty line, according to a new National Insurance Institute report.

HOMELESS IN south Tel Aviv  (photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
HOMELESS IN south Tel Aviv
(photo credit: LEKET ISRAEL)
Out of work and burdened with soaring expenses, a growing number of Israel’s middle class are plunging into poverty.
Roughly 800,000 Israelis are out of work, figures from the Israeli Employment Service published earlier this week show. Of those, 150,000 lost their jobs in the past few weeks alone after the start of the third nationwide lockdown. 
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Andrey Bozhko is the director of the House of Andrey Organization. With the help of Leket, Israel’s national food bank, Bozhko runs eight homeless shelters in South Tel Aviv and feeds 50 people each day. 
“During the pandemic I’ve been receiving requests from average people who just simply haven’t received a salary for a long time and were unable to pay their rent,” Bozhko told The Media Line. “We’re not able to help families because we don’t have apartments for couples. We house men and women separately.”
In recent months, a growing number of Tel Aviv residents have reached out to Bozhko for help. Some had been out of work for months due to COVID-19 restrictions and were simply unable to make ends meet. Many were hoping that financial assistance from the government would be enough to keep them afloat, but soon discovered that they could no longer afford to pay the sky-high apartment rents in Tel Aviv.
“There’s been a big change since the pandemic,” he affirmed. “People who’ve simply collapsed are coming now. Too many were depending on the state to help them and ended up falling apart financially.”
Nearly two million Israelis are living below the poverty line, according to a new report by the National Insurance Institute published late last week. That number represents 23% of Israeli citizens overall and roughly 30% of children. 
More pointedly, the report revealed that Israeli families’ standard of living dropped considerably in 2020, with the median economic income decreasing by 22.7%. The main victims of this drop were middle class.
At House of Andrey, the shelters are nondescript: each house has eight residents on average and the so-called “house manager” ensures that things are kept neat and tidy.
Those who end up living in the shelters come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds: some are former convicts who have recently been released from prison and others are regular citizens who have simply fallen on hard times. 
LEV MORDECHAI, a 57-year-old building contractor, is one of the latter.
“The crisis has really hit homeless people,” Mordechai related to The Media Line. “Those who have a place to live might be suffering from some losses, but people here have hit bottom and need the most help. We’re really feeling the effects of the crisis here.” 
In the past, Morchecai recounted, an abundance of food donations would make their way to the residents of the House of Andrey on a daily basis. When restaurants and hotels were forced to shut due to the spread of COVID-19, those donations began to run dry.
“Before the pandemic I was working non-stop,” Mordechai said. “I would also find work for my friends, but nowadays I’m always trying to find ways to make a living and to hold on for one more day.” 
Unfortunately, Mordechai is not alone in his struggles.
Leket fed 175,000 people across Israel each week before the economic crisis but that number has ballooned to 246,000 in months.
“When you go visit the nonprofits, which I do a lot, the nonprofits say that the population has just completely changed,” said Shira Woolf, public relations and marketing coordinator at Leket Israel.
“It’s people who have never in their lives stood in line [at] a soup kitchen looking for food [or] people who were working in hi-tech and they got put on furlough,” Woolf said. “All of a sudden, they couldn’t feed their kids.”
Another major Israeli aid organization – Latet – is also witnessing a worrisome surge. Founded in 1996, the NGO relies on donations from Israelis for the most part; however it also receives contributions from abroad.
A report Latet released last month showed that poverty rates in Israel have shot up by 50% since the start of the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession. Furthermore, the number of families living below the poverty line jumped from 20.1% last year (some 582,000 families) to 29.3% over 2020 (850,000). 
Significantly, the organization also found that the country’s middle class shrank by 15.5%.
Latet used to feed 60,000 families each month but that number has jumped to 72,000 families in the past year. People who never needed help before are relying on their food bank to stave off hunger.
SOME OF the requests have come as a shock, according to Gabrielle Pittiglio, Latet’s director of International Resource Development.
“The whole art sector has been out of work for so long and they started requesting help,” Pittiglio related. “We could not believe what we were hearing. It’s just outrageous.”
To cope with this new reality, Latet enlisted the help of volunteers to assist with everything from donations to packaging and distribution. At a recent packaging drive in the organization’s Beit Shemesh-based logistics center, dozens of young volunteers were on hand packing boxes with goods such as rice, canned tomatoes, cereal and other staples.
“I think it’s important to volunteer in general right now, especially because of the pandemic,” Gaya, an 18-year-old volunteer from Mechinat Alma, a pre-military academy that promotes young women’s leadership, said. “Everyone is in need of food and it’s really sad.” 
One of the biggest challenges for organizations like Latet and Leket at the moment lies in knowing how the crisis will unfurl. Pitttiglio, of Latet, believes that the true socio-economic impact of COVID-19 and the full extent of the damage to Israel’s middle class remain unknown.
“Things may get worse even when the health crisis gets better,” Pittiglio warned. “People that start being poor now may be drawn into a [cycle] that they will not be able to get out of unless we help them or unless someone does something.”