'Children go to school without food, and come home thirsty'

Managers of food banks, distribution centers and other groups that work with the country's poor were not surprised by the findings of the National Insurance Institute's latest poverty report, presented Monday. Cuts in child allowances and public housing benefits have combined, they say, with a struggling economy during the early years of the decade and high unemployment rates to create a vicious cycle of poverty in Israel. "I have visited families that simply have nothing to eat. Children with nothing to wear. Children who go to school without food, and come home thirsty. They go through five, six hours of school without food at all," said Ali Aburabiya, chairman of the Almamahir Fund, which is one of the few organizations that operates exclusively in the Beduin communities of the Negev and Galilee. "The cuts in child allowances is an especially cruel law that is destroying the Beduin family," Aburabiya said. "I understand that the idea behind it is to reduce the Beduin birthrate, but they didn't give a warning in advance, and suddenly families with 10 or even 20 children found themselves without money. If they had warned people in advance so they could have planned accordingly, it would have been different." Aburabiya said that poverty affects Beduin children in a particularly vicious manner. Often living in unrecognized settlements with little government-funded social services and in areas of few employment opportunities for their parents, such children frequently fall through the cracks. Aburabiya complained that the local council of Kseifa had recently cut funding for subsidized lunches in the area's schools, drawing a direct connection between the poverty of Beduin children and rising crime rates in the Negev. "The nation is creating a generation of criminals through cutting funding to critically poor families. "What do you expect from a boy with nothing to eat? He'll steal a car and sell the parts to buy his family bread," he said. Almost all aid organizations agree food is the most pressing concern for Israel's poor. Maya Englert, chairwoman and founder of the Beersheba-based Fund for Needy Immigrants, points to the elimination of free public housing for needy immigrants as a key factor in rising poverty rates. "In comparison to 1991, the situation has become much harder, because in 1991 immigrants had the option of public housing," Englert said. "Now, if a family of three lives at the poverty line and pays NIS 3,000 in mortgage for an apartment, what is left for food?" Englert said that in her experience many of the immigrants she sees are eager to work - and often do - but that unemployment is high, and immigrants are often underemployed or employed in part-time, minimum-wage jobs. Pitchon Lev, a national food bank, supplies food and basic household goods to more than 100,000 people a year through two distribution centers, in Karmiel and Rishon Lezion. They report that one-fifth of the food boxes that they supply are special "baby boxes" containing necessities such as diapers and formula - and both centers report an increase in the number of families turning to the organization for support in the past year. Englert agreed that the situation was so dire in many immigrant families that they were forced to choose between food and other crucial needs. She said that she had seen poor parents use their elementary school-aged children's schoolbook subsidy to buy food instead, while others who are faced with chronic illnesses such as cancer and juvenile diabetes forgo food entirely in order to pay for medical care. "Many families simply have empty refrigerators. They are brought to us - ironically - by state-funded social workers and school employees, and we will provide them with food certificates or packages. I wish we didn't have to give people food. But still, it's better than soup kitchens, which rob desperate parents of their last bit of self-respect when they have to go there."