Make work pay

The working poor have phones, appliances and a roof over their heads. What are they complaining about?

Poorman88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Some people feel that reports on poverty in Israel are exaggerated (I mean among those who bother keeping such reports in mind at all). Poverty, they claim, is measured relative to mean income. This way, they claim, when mean income rises, poverty can appear to increase as well. Some people will not settle for anything short of bare hunger and wretched homelessness before they recognize someone as poor. It is true that if we measured poverty by the international standard of two dollars a day, Israeli poverty statistics would appear much more optimistic. The same would be true if we compared a poor Israeli's standard of living to that of a well-to-do 10th-century craftsman. But this is obviously irrelevant. Poverty in Israel has to be measured in context - in the context of Israel's cost of living, in the context of contemporary standards for health and well-being, in the context of ever-growing social gaps (second only to those in the United States), and in the context of the fact that only the top two deciles of Israeli wage earners enjoyed the last couple of years' "accelerated growth." WE DO NOT meet 600,000 hungry children when we go shopping in the high street. We don't see hunger for two reasons: First, people are not proud of being hungry. They hide their hunger at home, inside an empty fridge. Second, hunger is not just calories per day, and it cannot be solved by simply stuffing people with dry bread. Fighting hunger means allowing people to purchase enough diverse and nutritious food to remain healthy, grow up normally and have enough stamina to be successful students or productive workers. Many Israelis have to settle for the kind of food that will end up costing the taxpayer 10 times the amount in health services that was supposedly saved in income support and child-benefit cutbacks. We look at the poor and see mobile phones, electrical appliances, and a roof over their heads. This isn't poverty, we think to ourselves. We needn't give them any money. What we don't see is that the phones take incoming calls only, because there's no money to recharge the calling card. We don't see that the appliances are old wedding presents or the remnants of more prosperous times. We don't see how close the roof over their heads is to being lost. A few months of unemployment, and the apartment is repossessed by the bank, or the landlord will kick you out for overdue rent. We don't see how a poor person has to choose between warm clothes and quality education for the children. We don't see poor people when they choose between paying municipal taxes or the gas bill. We see a person driving his car. We don't see that he has to keep this expensive form of transportation in order to be able to make his night shift, which pays just enough to justify keeping the car. We see people work for their living. We don't see that over 40% of poor families are headed by a working person. EXPECTING PEOPLE to work for a decent living makes sense. It doesn't make sense to expect them to work without earning a decent living. And it doesn't make sense to expect people to work without supplying them with the community services which they require in order to work. The advocacy group Sawt el-Amel - or "Laborer's Voice" - reports that Wisconsin Plan operators here demand that women workers report to work three hours before the first bus going through their village can get them there. They report on the woman who, in order to keep her income support, had to abandon her elderly mother at home. The elderly woman absentmindedly left the gas on and burned down the kitchen. They report on women who are expected to leave their children unattended in order to undergo so-called training, but in fact end up having to work for their income support, which is much lower than the minimum wage. THE LESSON from these cases is clear. If we expect people to work, we must provide infrastructure: proper public transportation, community day care services, proper education. We must also recognize that a homemaker is a working person. Removing a homemaker from the home means that childcare, cleaning and home maintenance must be somehow paid for. But no amount of free market ideology or neo-liberal economics can do that without a genuine redistribution of resources. Cutting back on income support and childcare will not succeed in bullying people into work. If I'm destined to poverty either way, I might as well stay unemployed. Cutbacks only force people into misery, sickness and dependence on charity - all of which end up being paid for by the general public. In order to encourage people to work, they must be provided with the infrastructure required to support a working person, and we must make sure that the work pays enough to be worth their while. Some people think that raising minimum wages, or even enforcing existing labor laws, is unfeasible because it will simply end up raising the cost of production and canceling itself in inflation. But this kind of freshman-textbook-economics is blind to the very arguments which support tax cutbacks and the lavishing of benefits on high-earning white-collar workers. Raising minimum wages and enforcing labor laws means more free income to boost the economy, and more motivation to work. It means that working people could actually support themselves, maintain their health and save for their retirement without becoming dependant on welfare. It means that their choices will not be between unemployed poverty versus working poverty, but between unemployment and dignified self-sustenance. It means that the rich will be ever-so-slightly less rich, but it also means that society as a whole will take another step from being a plague-ridden jungle toward a community that is sound and safe. The writer is a board member for worker rights NGO Kav LaOved - Worker's Hotline.