123,000 fall below poverty line in Israel in 2009

Herzog says poverty one of the main dangers to the State of Israel: "We like to talk about poverty, but not about the poor."

311_Herzog with Dominissini (photo credit: Avi Ohayun / GPO)
311_Herzog with Dominissini
(photo credit: Avi Ohayun / GPO)
Poverty is the biggest danger facing Israel today, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog warned Monday as he unveiled disturbing data from the National Insurance Institute’s Annual Poverty Report for 2009.
The report pointed to a sharp increase in the number of Israeli families joining the poverty cycle, with more than 15,000 families – or 123,500 individuals – joining the growing ranks of poor people in this country in 2009, following the global economic crisis that set in at the tail-end of 2008.
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Overall, some 435,100 families and 1,774,800 Israelis were living below the poverty line in 2009, compared to 1,651,300 in 2008. In addition, 850,300 children were considered poor in 2009, an increase from 783,600 the previous year.
The report further noted that most of the families experiencing a drop in their standard of living actually had one working family member, with many having been forced to take severe pay cuts and others losing their jobs, and consequently their incomes, entirely.
“This report comes out after the start of the global economic crisis and makes clear that there was a dramatic increase in poverty in 2009,” Herzog said at a press conference in Jerusalem. “I’ve said this time and time again: Poverty is Israel’s biggest danger. We love talking about poverty, but not about the actual poor.”
He noted that the report highlighted the haredi and Arab communities as the hardest hit by the recession and as having faced a sharp increase in poverty levels.
“We see from these statistics that there is a ‘new second Israel’ that is made up primarily of Arabs and haredim,” said the minister. “In both these sectors, there is a clear link between family size and poverty, and it is our job to encourage recognition of better family planning in the modern age and how women can be the key to this change.”
He added that “these two groups of people are our main challenge, and we must not leave this situation the way it is today.”
Herzog also specifically underscored the plight of Arab citizens in east Jerusalem, whose poverty increased five times more than any other population group. He said the problem was connected to nationalism and the political situation, and that many of the Arab neighborhoods in the capital lacked basic necessities.
While he focused on the country’s minorities, Herzog said it was not just haredim and Arabs who had joined the poverty cycle in the past year and a half, but also single parents, new immigrants and many working-class Israelis who had lost their jobs or been forced to significantly reduce their incomes.
The increase in poverty has automatically led to an increase in violence, children at risk and other social ills, he said.
According to the report, the poverty line in 2009 stood at a monthly income of NIS 2,268 per person or NIS 5,807 for a family of four. Based on that measurement, the report found that 20.5 percent of families and 25% of individuals were considered below the poverty line – an increase from 2008’s 19.9% and 23.7%, respectively.
NII Director-General Esther Dominissini said the government needed to take immediate steps to address the problem, including initiating a replacement for the welfareto- work program that was disbanded earlier this year; instituting a program of negative income tax reductions; increasing minimum wage, an idea that was recently voted down by the government; and investing more resources in fighting poverty.
Both Herzog and Dominissini pointed out that this was the first year the report had been compiled since Israel joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which aims to bring world governments together to boost market economy. Israel’s poverty levels are almost double those of other member countries, they noted.
“This report comes as no surprise to me,” Abraham Israel, founder and director of the Hazon Yeshaya humanitarian network – one of Israel’s largest poverty relief charities – told The Jerusalem Post after the report was released.
“In recent months we have been receiving an increasing volume of requests for help, particularly from poor families, battered wives and single mothers. This month, we have been asked to help thousands of additional children who are living in ‘Status A’ poverty and come to school with empty bellies and nothing to eat. Three schools in Arab east Jerusalem have also asked to join our school meals program,” he said.
“This report is not surprising and shows the government’s impotence in dealing with problems of poverty in Israel,” agreed Kadima MK Shlomo Molla. “The current government continues to rely on the pillars of the capitalist system. There is no doubt that in the absence of social and economic policy, social gaps will continue to strengthen and deepen poverty.”
Herzog said he planned to present the report to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other members of the coalition and urge them to consider a specially tailored program his ministry had created to tackle poverty.
Hours before the report’s publication, opposition MKs blasted the 2011-2012 budget on Monday as delivering a serious blow to the country’s poor.
The budget was officially presented to the Knesset Finance Committee by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday morning, and Meretz Party Chairman Haim Oron was quick to describe the proposed budget as one that “does not enable the continued existence of the welfare state.”
Steinitz plugged his budget as heralding a change in government priorities, including reining in the massive defense budget and a “significant increase in the budget for education and higher learning.”
He outlined four major goals within the budget: strengthening hi-tech as the engine for growth, increasing investment in all levels of education, improving periphery infrastructures and integrating haredi men and women into the workforce.
Finance Ministry Director-General Haim Shani and Budget Division head Udi Nissan told MKs that the decline in the national product witnessed in 2008-2009 was lower than that of most other countries. According to Shani, even in 2009 – the worst year of the recession – the Israeli economy continued to grow.
But opposition MKs were anything but satisfied with the Treasury’s report. Oron complained that the presentations failed to demonstrate even one area of improvement in social measures. The improvements in education, said Oron, would not help close the growing gaps between rich and poor.
Former MK Gideon Ben-Israel, the sole representative of the Labor Party at the hearing, complained to Steinitz that the budget froze stipends for the elderly. The 87-year-old Ben-Israel complained that many of Israel’s elderly were so impoverished that they had no teeth – and no money to buy dentures.
MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) argued during the meeting that the budget discussed employment for specific sectors of society, but offered no solution for reducing unemployment for the wider population.
“The welfare state may not collapse today, but we are certainly on the way. Some of the problems stem from the 2003 budget, continued when the banner was passed to the Olmert administration, and are growing worse. Social services are not just for those who don’t work, but also for the poor who do,” she declared.
But social critiques of the budget were not limited to opposition members.
Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) slammed the budget as “trying to wipe out public housing,” during a second Knesset hearing Monday.
Treasury representatives did not attend the meeting of the State Control Committee, which was slated to discuss the recent comptroller’s report on public housing, but Attias was not deterred by their absence.
He blasted the Treasury for budgeting a mere NIS 750,000 for his ministry’s Exceptions Committee, labeling the funds as “simply absurd.”