Where the high poverty rates come from

Everybody knows which two population group are most responsible.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
What we have in Israel these days is not a war on poverty, but a war about poverty. From all over come contradictory pronouncements, prognostications, analyses, accusations, and no small amount of hypocrisy. Bituah Leumi, the National Insurance Institute, defines the poverty line as "50% of the median net income per standard person," a "standard person" being a member of a family statistically weighted by the family's size. (A fifth child, for example, counts for less than a second, since certain costs - clothing, for example, which can be handed down by an older child to a younger - do not increase in direct proportion to the number of children.) This comes to a bit over NIS 4,000 a month for a family of four and to over NIS 7,000 a month for a family of nine. These are indeed pitifully small sums for such families to get along on, particularly the larger ones. And that larger families in Israel form a disproportionately high percentage of the country's poor we know from the fact that while roughly one out of every five Israeli families is below the poverty line, the figure for children is one out of three. This can only mean that the families in Israel earning the least are also those having the most children. AND HERE is where the hypocrisy begins, because while it may be politically incorrect these days to say so, everyone knows which two population groups in Israel we are most talking about. One is ultra-Orthodox Jews, the other Muslim Arabs. If we were to omit them both from our calculations, Israel's poverty rates would turn out to be not so high after all and much more like those of other First World countries. Moreover, it's also no secret that, when it comes to statistics about income, these two groups are the most unreliable. Although non- or under-reporting of income is rampant in Israel, it's most widespread among those who are (a) self-employed and (b) difficult for the tax authorities to check on. This combination is found, disproportionately again, in the haredi and Arab sectors. These are communities in which a large number of those who do work have their own freelance trades and small businesses. And they are also insular communities that harbor antagonism toward the government, to which they feel no obligation to pay taxes. This is not to say that poverty is not a bad problem in Israel. It is to say, though, firstly, that it may not be quite as bad as it seems, and secondly, that Israel as a whole may not be quite so responsible for it as it seems. After all, if a family with an income, say, of NIS 7,000 a month, on which it could have managed to get by with two children, chooses to have seven children instead, the rest of society is not totally to blame for its poverty. And this is even more so, needless to say, if the reason it has so little money is because the father of the family has never looked for work, preferring as many haredi husbands do to study in a yeshiva, or if the mother does not work because - as is common in both the ultra-Orthodox and Muslim communities - her husband or social mores do not allow it or she keeps having babies who require her to remain at home. It is certainly true that the child allowances paid by the National Insurance Institute, which average about NIS 250 per child per month, are pitifully small too. You can barely feed a child on that amount, much less give it the childhood it deserves. And yet at the same time, why should the average taxpayer, who does not have an economically easy time of it either and more often than not has an overdraft at the bank, be expected to support families who decide to have more children than they can afford? Is he to blame that they have them? We might recall that the original rationale in Israel for child allowances, which do not exist in most other Western countries (tax deductions for children do - but to qualify for them, one has to earn taxable income), was as much demographic as humanitarian. These allowances, that is, were meant not only to support children who were already born, but to encourage the propagation of more children in the hope that Israeli Jews would have large families like Israeli Arabs and preserve the demographic balance between the two peoples. And yet the demographics of child allowances have backfired. Allowances have done nothing to keep secular Israeli Jews from having fewer and fewer children over the years (the secular birthrate is now slightly more than two children per family) and have gone heavily to religious Jews and Muslims. (The Christian Arab and Druse birthrates are not much higher than Jewish ones.) Although the average haredi family today has seven children and the average Muslim family only four, Israel's Muslim population is roughly three times larger; therefore child allowances, if they affect birthrates at all, today serve, from the Jewish point of view, to worsen the demographic situation rather than to improve it. Although cutting poverty in Israel depends on many things, including more and better-paying jobs and better educational training to prepare for them, smaller families would clearly help too. They would enable working parents, Muslim and Jewish, to support and educate their children better; make it possible for non-working parents, especially mothers, to go to work; would lower government expenditures and taxes - and would in the bargain help firm up Israel's Jewish majority. We cannot, of course, simply abolish child allowances and let the children who now depend on them grow up in abjectness. If anything, we should increase them - for children who are already born. But at the same time we should be thinking of policies whereby, starting with an official cut-off date, child allowances after a certain child would be eliminated. We have enough poverty without subsidizing the creation of still more of it. There is nothing wrong with large families as long as someone else is not expected to pay for them. In this season of self-castigation for being a country that permits so much poverty, let's remember that sometimes poverty is also the fault of the poor.