How should Israel solve its poverty problem?

Jews, Arabs and Christians alike suffer from a high degree of poverty – a phenomenon that has only grown in recent years.

 WELFARE AND Social Services Minister Meir Cohen (left) and National Insurance Institute director-general Meir Spiegler display the 2020 poverty report at a ceremony in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
WELFARE AND Social Services Minister Meir Cohen (left) and National Insurance Institute director-general Meir Spiegler display the 2020 poverty report at a ceremony in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Despite Israel’s remarkable cultural and social diversity, one factor that is common to almost every sector of the country’s population is the existence of poverty. Jews, Arabs and Christians alike suffer from a high degree of poverty – a phenomenon that has only grown in recent years.

Poverty is often measured in all sorts of forecasts, developed by both government and nonprofit agencies. While they are all intending to map the number of the poor and needy, there is little socially scientific definition of what poverty truly is. While some might think that developing such a definition is a matter of semantics, the lack of a commonly accepted understanding of what is truly poor leads decision-makers and welfare agencies to fail in properly responding to this growing national challenge.

By all accounts, poverty is relative and differs among cultures and countries. However, we still need to understand whether it is simply reflected in lower household incomes than the national average or that a person is only poverty-stricken if they literally cannot put food on the table?

It may be more helpful to discuss the difference between hungry and poverty. It is relatively clear cut that nearly every hungry person is poor, but not every poor person is hungry. By better understanding that hunger describes a very specific and extreme level of need, it better positions us to respond. These definitions matter a great deal when it comes to designing budgets and analyzing data of where and how to distribute limited public and private funding.

With a lack of common definitions, we are left with a situation where various agencies and organizations pursue independent criteria that are developed without any oversight or collaboration with standards of the National Insurance Institute or the Central Bureau of Statistics. This creates a situation where those agencies often ignore certain parts of Israeli society, most notably the Arab sector, and thereby hold back assistance from providing food security to those who really need it.

Latet to sell empty cans with politicians' faces as a call to action against poverty (credit: RACHEL WOLF)Latet to sell empty cans with politicians' faces as a call to action against poverty (credit: RACHEL WOLF)

Proper mapping of national food insecurity must rely on objective standards, factoring in employment, unemployment, government stipends and accessibility to other income streams. Subsequently, we must address expenses, such as electricity, fuel and taxes, as well as areas like healthcare, childcare and so on.

Just as defining poverty and food insecurity is critical, so too is defining eligibility. We do ourselves a disservice as a society by distributing handouts to more people than require them. More importantly, we do the recipients themselves a disservice by simply supporting those who aren’t maximizing their earning potential.

Overcoming these challenges and respecting that poverty is by no means an objective characterization of need has been the focus of the National Food Security Initiative for the past five years.

As the national government-supported program operated by Colel Chabad, Israel’s longest running social services organization since 1788, we are proudly non-discriminatory and serve all populations from Metula in the north to Eilat in the south. Based on our evaluations of real need in accordance with the guidelines described above, we have determined that approximately 150,000 families in Israel are eligible for assistance from our Initiative.

The assistance includes packages of dry goods and produce in an amount that is sufficient for a month. In addition, a rechargeable card is provided with 250 shekels, which the family can use to purchase products that they need at supermarkets throughout the country (the option of purchasing tobacco products and alcohol is blocked).

In addition to the physical assistance, the initiative runs workshops for families that teach household budgeting, proper nutrition and personal empowerment for parents, in addition to fun outings and guidance for children. The goal is to accompany the family until they successfully break free of the need for nutritional and economic support.

The success of our initiative has proven that loud headlines and surveys that either exaggerate or mitigate the scope of poverty in Israel, while perhaps successful in gaining short-term public attention and scaring the public to think we face an insurmountable crisis of poverty, is in fact entirely counterproductive.

Rather, by working strategically based upon clear eligibility criteria along with workable and fundable solutions, we will prevent the perpetuation of real poverty and provide Israel with effective tools to address hunger and food insecurity.

The writer is the spokesperson for the National Food Security Initiative.