Recent research conducted by the Economic and Social Program at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute points to severely increased poverty among the haredi population.
According to the study, the lack of appropriate education, large families and the cut-backs in child allocations by the National Insurance Institute (NII) have combined to create a near-crisis situation among haredim, despite increased work-force participation.
The research was conducted by Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, a high-ranking official with the Bank of Israel and lecturer in the economics of poverty at Ben-Gurion University, with the participation of Yehuda Eliraz, an expert in haredi society.
Participants in the project were selected according to their own description of themselves as "haredim," rather than assessments by data banks such as the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The research reveals that both haredi men and women are increasingly willing to enter the labor force. In fact, between 2002 and 2004, proportionately more haredi men entered the work force than non-haredi men. This is particularly true for the hassidic haredim, while the Lithuanian and other non-hassidic haredi groups tend to prolong their religious studies for many years.
However, large families, which limit the mother's ability to work and entail great expenses, are another source of poverty. Among the haredim, the proportion of children under the age of 19 is twice that of the non-haredi Jewish population. The proportion of children under the age of four in the haredi population is three times that of the non-haredi population.
"I know families who cannot afford anything," says a municipal social worker who works in a haredi neighborhood. "The families have seven or even nine children. There is nothing in the apartment - just beds, a table for the Shabbat meals and a closet for the clothes. They do not heat the water or the house, but they have holy books. They eat meat only once a week, and they receive new clothing and shoes, which come from charity associations, only twice a year."
Many of the families she is in touch with, the social worker says, receive their everyday food from charitable associations, and the very low income they have - mostly the NII allocations - is used for school tuition, since the haredi education system is considered private and costs money.
Says Rabbi Shlomo Rosenshtein, a principal of a (non-haredi) religious school and a member of the municipal council, "I see two reasons for this situation: the cutbacks in the allocations and the size of the 'learning community.' Once, those who went to yeshiva had parents who worked and could help their children to get married and make a living. Now the children and even the grandchildren who study in yeshivot have parents and great-parents who themselves are yeshiva students."
Says Rosenshtein, "A haredi child between the ages of six and 20 costs his parents between $100 and $180 a month. Since almost all of the poor families have between five and 10 children, or even more, the monthly cost for education alone can be more than $1,000. This leaves them a ridiculously low sum to cover all their other needs. Yet you will never find a haredi family that renounces religious education for their children."
Haredi officials also agree with the research findings that the trend toward increased work-force participation is significant.
Rosenshtein explains, "The walls that have been erected to protect haredi life are strong. Now we can allow ourselves to leave our communities and return safely. Now we can go out to look for jobs and to improve our lives, without fear and without endangering the world of the Torah."
But the study shows that work-force participation alone cannot reverse the downward spiral toward destitute poverty, and even those who choose to leave the yeshiva world are limited in the employment options available to them. Deficits in the haredi educational curriculum, and especially with regard to English, mathematics and computer literacy, condemn haredim to low-paying, marginal jobs.
"The problem with the haredi society is not the lack of education, it is the content of this education, which does not prepare them for life outside the yeshiva," researcher Gottlieb told In Jerusalem
Gottlieb is careful to emphasize that he does not recommend forcing haredim to accept what they perceive as "foreign" content in their school systems, such as modern history or civics. For these reasons, he also rejects the Dovrat Commission's recommendations that the haredi school system must include a requisite core curriculum, including history and literature.
But he does recommend that the haredi school system implement a comprehensive program that would enable students to continue to pursue their traditional life-style while acquiring the skills they need in order to earn a reasonable living.
He explains further, "What we found is that haredi men who have received vocational training will be able to work, but it does not mean they will earn a decent salary, because their skills are very low.
"[This is] not because they are not capable, but rather because their lack of skills prevents them from being able to study a profession in which they will be well-paid. They are doomed to low-income jobs."
Gottlieb continues, "Since we know that, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of small children in haredi society is very high, this means that we are on the verge of a real disaster, even if there are no further cuts in the government allocations. The government must be aware of this explosive situation".
Gottlieb's findings with regard to haredi women's employment are intriguing. He notes that the gap in labor-force participation between haredi women and other Jewish women is small, while among men it remains high.
Furthermore, women's education does enable them to study subjects and acquire skills that are useful in the labor market. "The low- and mid-level salaries of haredi women are the same as those of the non-haredi working women, while the men are employed at salary levels much lower than for non-haredi men."
Despite the impending crisis, Rosenshtein says, "Poverty in the haredi population looks and feels different than in other communities.
"You will never see hunger in a haredi family, even if they are the poorest people on Earth. You will never see a haredi family living in the streets. The community network of support is very strong, it works."
According to Gottlieb, his research is based on different measures than previous research and include assessments of housing, health and education as well as other, more traditional measures of poverty. This methodology, he says, is widely accepted in the Western world and is based on the centrality of the person experiencing poverty and less on quantitative data and figures.
"The results of this method are that we have found more poor people and those people turned out to be much poorer than previously considered by the National Insurance Institute," Gottlieb concludes.
The combination of inadequate basic education, large young families and slashed government subsidies has led the researchers to predict that the situation will deteriorate even further over the next few years.
"I think the best way is to define the war on poverty as 'a goal to reach' as we did with inflation, and thus to create both hope and a dynamic process."