Poverty in Israel – and the PM’s expenses

Think About It: OECD figures published last week indicate that among the 34 members of the organization, the rate of poverty in Israel is the highest.

Netanyahu looking determined 370 (photo credit: Emil Salman/Haaretz/pool)
Netanyahu looking determined 370
(photo credit: Emil Salman/Haaretz/pool)
OECD figures published last week indicate that among the 34 members of the organization, the rate of poverty in Israel is the highest.
What do these figures mean? They do not mean that Israel’s poor are the worst off among the poor in the OECD in absolute terms. The rate is measured by taking the mean income (from all sources) per person in the country (i.e. half the population is above this figure, and half is below), and anyone whose income is less than half this figure is considered poor.
Despite extensive searches I have not managed to find the figure of this damning mean per capita income in Israel – neither in OECD statistics, nor in the figures published by the Israeli Bureau of Statistics.
All I have managed to find is the mean monthly salary in Israel, which is somewhere in the range of NIS 5,500-NIS 6,000 (the average salary is around NIS 8,000-NIS 9,000).
Logic suggests that if one calculates the rate of poverty in this way, the greater the level of inequality in the country in terms of income, greater the poverty rate. This is borne out by the statistics: the five OECD members in which there are the highest levels of inequality – Chile, Mexico, Turkey, the US and Israel, in that order – are also among the states where the poverty rate is highest.
Of course, inequality is not the only reason why in Israel close to 21 percent of the population is defined as poor. The very high birthrate (which means that a relatively high percentage of the population are non-employed minors), the ever-growing percentage of pensioners, the fact that a high percentage of haredi men do not go out to work as a matter of principle, the very low rate of Arab women in the workforce because there are few jobs available close to home, and the availability of cheap foreign labor that keeps down incomes in menial jobs are among the other reasons.
Furthermore, since the black economy, which involves unreported income, is vast in Israel (estimated at NIS 200 billion per annum), and presumably involves many people who are counted as poor, it is reasonable to assume that the true mean income is much higher than reported, and that the number of people whose income is less than half this figure is also lower than reported.
Even if the figures are not as bad as those published by the OECD, those of us who would like Israel to be a more egalitarian society, and believe the state could do much more to reduce the number of poor people in the country, have reason to be displeased.
Though we have a government that speaks of a more equal sharing of the burden, both in terms of gainful employment and military service, every time one speaks of increasing equality on the income side of the equation, by increasing taxation on successful corporations and the rich, ensuring that the working poor earn decent wages, and that no one is overpaid – in salary and expense accounts – at the expense of the public, one is accused of populism and/or ignorance.
Unfortunately one of the overpaid is no other than our prime minister – the only man who could bring about a real change if only he weren’t part of the problem.
Netanyahu’s gross salary is currently NIS 46,699, though it might soon be reduced to NIS 42,272 within the framework of the plans of the Finance Ministry to cut the salaries of our leaders. But if you think the prime minister must make do with a net income of around NIS 30,000, think again.
Last week it was revealed (as a result of a petition by the Movement for Freedom of Information to the Jerusalem District Court) that in addition to his salary, the prime minister receives close to NIS 280,000 a month to cover household expenses.
This includes around NIS 40,000 for food and hosting, NIS 100,000 for cleaning (more than NIS 3,000 a day!), NIS 8,000 for purchases for the house, NIS 5,100 for clothing, make-up and hairdressing, and NIS 12,000 for gardening. It should be noted that housekeeping and maintenance costs include Netanyahu’s two private residences, even though neither serves for the prime minister’s public functions.
The private villa in Caesarea costs the taxpayer NIS 26,500 a month.
All this does not include the prime minister’s travels abroad (we were recently informed that the prime minister’s insistence on being provided with a double bed during his trip to London, to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral – a trip of under five hours – cost the taxpayer close to $500,000), hosting guests outside his official residence (mostly in hotels), bodyguards and security, expenses for “contact with the public,” etc.
Of course, even if the prime minister’s monthly salary was brought down to a symbolic NIS 1, or if his expenses were deducted from his current salary, the state’s budgetary deficit would not be alleviated, nor would the situation of Israel’s poor improve. But that is not the point.
We are talking about appearances, proportionality and setting a public example. We are talking of expenses that have doubled since 2009, when Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time, even though the cost of living increased in this period by around only 10 percent. We are talking of faulty norms.
Netanyahu’s reaction to the publication of his expense figures was to send two of his lawyers to the media over the weekend, to get across the message that the reality is very different to the picture portrayed.
The two lawyers (paid by the state, or by Netanyahu privately?) sounded like a couple of parrots reciting a dictated text.
They certainly didn’t convince me Netanyahu is aware of the poor example he sets; that he understands that NIS 3,000 a day on cleaning is unreasonable; that buying pistachio ice cream (his favorite) for thousands of shekels a year at the public’s expense is outrageous; that when he flies he can get a good night’s sleep on a First Class, or Business Class seat; that he is indeed “first among equals,” but certainly not a king (despite the mocking Time magazine headline), prince or movie star (not even a Ronald Reagan); and in general that he lives on planet earth, in a country called Israel, which has a NIS 40b. budget deficit that his government created, and the highest poverty rate in the OECD – something that happened during his shift.
The lawyers claimed Netanyahu has brought in an auditor to recommend where cuts in his expenses can be implemented (who is paying for the auditor?).
Can’t he simply use common sense? And if he cannot do without the luxuries and perks, without makeup and hairstyling, and without pistachio ice cream (which is bad for the figure) – it is said he is a wealthy man. So, Mr. Netanyahu, how about digging into your own pockets for a change?
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.