Herzog to 'Post': 2009 will be a tough year

Positive news in annual poverty report expected to be nullified in growing crisis.

poor man poverty 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
poor man poverty 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The ongoing financial crisis has yet to fully reach Israel, and will deal the country's fight against poverty a major blow when it does, said Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog after the 2007 Poverty Report was submitted to his office on Sunday. "The report shows a lot of areas where we had improved," Herzog told The Jerusalem Post. "But I'm afraid those successes are going to be overshadowed by upcoming setbacks." According to the report, there was an improvement in the country's poverty rates between 2006 and 2007, and the economic quality of life for families across the country improved - meaning that in 2007, economic growth managed to reach the lower-income sector of society. "I wish I could promise that the reduction of poverty would continue next year as well," Herzog said. "But there is a very real threat that 2009 will erase any improvement." The financial crisis, which has until now been felt sparingly, will reach its peak over the next year, and, Herzog said, times are going to be tough. "According to forecasts, a high rate of unemployment is expected in 2009. I don't want to induce unnecessary panic, but it is better to know the facts and lay them on the table before it's too late," he said. "I announced a week ago that I instructed the National Insurance Institute to form a plan designed to deal with the rise in unemployment following the economic crisis, and I will present this plan as soon as possible." Herzog went on to say that in times of economic strife, those who are already poor get hit the hardest, and those struggling with their finances face the brunt of the hardships. Therefore, the successes of 2007 will be all but wiped away, and by mid-2009, the country's poor will be in serious trouble. Herzog also attacked opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud), saying, "I found it appropriate to act against the background, unfortunately laid out by Netanyahu during his term [as finance minister], in which the terms of eligibility for unemployment benefits worsened compared to the norm in other developed countries. The data obtained by the National Insurance Institute head of research points to the fact that the period of eligibility is one of the lowest in the West." According to the report, 1,600,400 people in 412,900 families were classified as poor in 2007, including 774,000 children. While the country's general standard of living increased by 3.6 percent, there was a slight decrease in the number of families living in below the poverty line, from 20% in 2006 to 19.9% in 2007. The poverty line is defined as 50% of the median net income and is adjusted to family size. The report also showed that the sectors most plagued with poverty were the elderly (22.6%) and Arab families (51.5%). In addition, the geographic breakdown of the numbers showed that while poverty rates in the Haifa and Central regions were steadily decreasing, poverty rates in the North, South and greater Jerusalem area were increasing. In response to the report, Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich said that "the immense number of poor workers prove time and again that poverty in Israel is not related only to stipends, but derives more from the employment of workers under contract terms and other exploitative conditions. We must remember that the harm [the recent financial crisis caused] to the pension funds of those who worked and saved all their lives was not mentioned in the report." She added that "adequate employment security and dignified resignations are the keys to the war on poverty, and the Treasury must immediately implement the recommendations made by Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini in the matter." Herzog also touched on the general labor dispute that the Histadrut declared on Sunday, as the country's largest labor federation continued to protest the Finance Ministry's refusal to present a financial safety net for pension and retirement savings. "The most important thing at this juncture is to let go of the ego and sit down around the [negotiating] table. The government, the Histadrut, employers, and the heads of all of the political parties all need to sit down together and produce a financial package that is agreed upon by all. It's possible to do it, but only if people take responsibility, and the sooner the better," he said. He called on "the finance minister, and the heads of his office, not to hold onto their position without budging. Prevent unnecessary confrontations, combine efforts with the Histadrut, and stand as one before us. We really have only one aim, and that's to assist the citizens of Israel in their moment of need - we do not have the privilege of wasting time. Put your egos aside." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.