Overcoming poverty

Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen presents his solutions for helping Israel’s poor.

Citizens who rummage in the garbage is no longer uncommon. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Citizens who rummage in the garbage is no longer uncommon.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Meir Cohen, 58, made aliya with his family from Morocco as a young child, and grew up in a ma’abara (immigrant transit camp) in Yeroham and then later in Dimona with his parents and five siblings. His sister, Ruti Sheetrit, who works in PR, is the wife of MK Meir Sheetrit of Hatnua. After serving in the IDF Paratroopers he completed a BA in history of the Jewish People and an MA in Jewish thought. Cohen worked in education for 26 years, and became the principal of Zinman High School in Dimona.
From 2003 to 2013, he mayor of Dimona. He is considered to have been extremely effective in this position, and received the National Education Award. He brought increased culture to the city, establishing a theater and cinema. He implemented environmental programs, built an emergency medical facility and improved public transportation.
Cohen joined Finance Minister Yair Lapid when Yesh Atid was in formation, and was elected to the Knesset in the party’s No. 4 spot, following Education Minister Shai Peron and Health Minister Yael German.
Is the Welfare Ministry the position you had longed for, or had you hoped to receive the Development of the Negev and Galilee Ministry?
I was thrilled to receive the welfare post, since I have tremendous experience in this field from when I was mayor. This is a very important position that has been neglected for many years. It’s a very challenging job. The welfare minister has to contend with the less beautiful aspects of Israeli society, the poor and the elderly. I work with social workers who invest their heart and soul in the people and communities they work with.I spoke with Cohen just one day after poverty reports were released by the aid organization Latet, an NGO that provides assistance to needy populations in Israel. The statistics do not bode well. One particularly alarming statistic is that 50 percent of parents in families that receive assistance reported that their children have experienced entire days without having any food to eat.
Were you shocked at those statistics?
Yes, and I would have been shocked even if only 10% of these f a m i l i e s fell in this category.
Poverty has become an issue of national importance. It is not a problem for poor people alone, but for the entire country. In an effort to fight against poverty, I created an independent committee to be headed by Israel Prize winner Eli Alaluf, which is preparing its operational recommendations. We will present these recommendations to the government, even though these hard facts will probably cause some officials to squirm uncomfortably in their chairs.
How do you feel knowing that there are so many people who go hungry in Israel?
I saw hungry Beduin children near my home in Dimona. I went up to them and asked when they had last eaten. Half of them told me they hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. So I asked the head of the municipality to send me a list of 120 families in his community whose children do not have enough to eat, and that I would take care of them. As welfare minister, I cannot allow there to be so many hunger children in Israel.
You committed to allocate NIS 60 million to non-profit organizations that distribute food to the needy. Shouldn’t the state be directly helping these poor people?
My goal is for the government to take back control and the responsibility of taking care of the needy without cutting off funding to the non-profits.
When I was mayor of Dimona, many times I turned to these wonderful organizations and requested their help in dealing with residents of my city.
When I was appointed minister, I officially stated that these organizations would not stop receiving these funds and that we viewed them as full-fledged partners. This isn’t to say that I’m not taking responsibility for dealing with the poverty issue.
The people volunteering in these organizations are very caring, but they should not need to cope with overcoming poverty on their own.
Should we expect to see more poor people rummaging through garbage cans at the vegetable and fruit markets?
No, this phenomenon will cease to exist, but not from one day to the next. This can only happen, though, after we realize that we shouldn’t be worrying about the Iranian threat, but about our own social problems .
Another serious issue is the current wave of layoffs. Companies have been too quick to pull the trigger. They should accept that profits might be a little lower. Men and women who are in their 40s and 50s have a very hard time finding new places of employment.
Cohen commends Education Minister Shai Peron for implementing longer school days and Health Minister Yael German for expanding health services. Both are from Cohen’s own party, Yesh Atid.Yair Lapid is the first minister to succeed in raising the Welfare Ministry’s budget by NIS 1 billion, and that’s not including the allocation for Holocaust survivors. Our goal for the short-term is to reduce poverty by 10% and this is achievable. It’s not okay that a country that produces the most Nobel Prize winners relative to its size is unable to deal with poverty among its own people.
Many people have claimed that Lapid has not kept his promise to help the middle class.
Israelis have developed a habit of always looking for someone else to blame. At the height of the storm, when electric company employees were hanging from electric poles in the freezing weather trying to repair damage, the prime minister was quick to publicly criticize the electric company.
People are always looking for other people to blame and are quick to slander politicians. In this case, Lapid – who has taken responsibility – is doing a tremendous amount to help weaker communities.
When I approached Lapid and described the plight of Holocaust survivors to him, he immediately allocated NIS 500 million to them.
The poverty reports show that 95% of elderly citizens complain that their pension is not enough for them to live with dignity.
Are you planning on making reforms in this area? Yes, absolutely. All elderly people who are not well enough to work must have higher pensions. This is imperative. I have no doubt that one of the first recommendations of the committee for combating poverty will be to increase allocations to the elderly.
President Shimon Peres commented recently when the report was presented, “Granted, I myself am young, but I believe that each elderly person in Israel should immediately receive a one-time grant of NIS 1,000.” But I don’t think this will help, we need to increase the monthly stipend too.
But five months ago children’s allowances were cut by 30%.
And that’s not by coincidence. I grew up in a ma’abara in the 1960s in a nine-member family and there were no children’s allowances back then. We need to be careful not to turn this allowance into something holy that we worship. For many years, child allowances were the government’s form of lip service. They offered this little treat in place of making sure that education and health services in the periphery were up to par. Nobody is going to convince me that an allowance of NIS 300 or NIS 400 a month is going to help people extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty. But it’s enough to discourage someone from going out and looking for work. When I was mayor, it killed me to see that so many of the adults asking for allowances had grown up receiving them, that they preferred receiving these funds instead of going out to work.
I was very pleased to hear that the economy minister, Naftali Bennett, is working ardently to build new commercial centers in the north and the south by offering tax reductions and incentives to companies that are willing to relocate to the periphery and provide employment to local populations.Translated by Hannah Hochner.