Poverty goes to court

Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom leaves the interpretation of the term "dignity" to the courts.

tsunami victim 88 (photo credit: )
tsunami victim 88
(photo credit: )
The recent High Court decision rejecting petitions that protested steep cuts in welfare payments to the needy hardly comes as a surprise, not so much because of the substance of the petitioners' arguments as the constitutional ramifications of their request. At the same time, however, the court's decision included remarks that are almost certain to elevate the debate on poverty, and what, if anything, needs to be done to help the poorest strata of society, to a more rational, objective, systematic and practical level than we have known so far. Until now, that debate has been restricted to annual poverty reports, the inevitable heart-breaking stories and photos that appear in the press the following day, and occasional reports by interest groups and academics protesting the government's economic policies. The latest petitioners, including welfare recipients Bilha Rabinova and Yosef Padlon, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the War on Poverty Movement and the Commitment to Peace and Social Justice Organization, asked the court to overturn a law passed on December 17, 2002, aimed at implementing a key plank in the government's economic platform. Along with additional government decisions made at the same time, the combined policy reduced welfare and other social benefits for 100,000 recipients by an average of NIS 670 per month. From the outset, the petitioners must have known that the court would not trespass on the prerogatives of the legislature, no matter what the merits of their case. The only way to overturn Knesset legislation is for the High Court to rule that it violates the rights guaranteed in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, and the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom guarantees the "preservation and protection of the life, body and dignity" of every human being. However, it leaves the interpretation of the term "dignity" to the courts. More importantly, regarding the petitions in question, it does not specifically guarantee social rights. The petitioners argued that socioeconomic conditions were a crucial element in the ability of individuals and families to live in dignity. The state was therefore obliged to provide these conditions. By drastically cutting welfare payments, it was denying them that right. The state maintained that it was only responsible for providing the most basic subsistence needs of its citizens. It also argued that it provided a wide array of social benefits in addition to welfare payments and that the entire government aid package had to be taken into account in assessing the standard of living of the poor. The court rejected the petitions on the grounds that the petitioners had failed to prove that the welfare cuts had lowered the standard of living of individuals to the point where they had lost their dignity. At the same time, however, it affirmed that there was such a point and that if an individual could prove to the court that welfare cuts, or any other act of government, pushed them below that point, the courts would act to redress the wrong. "A person's dignity is injured when he tries to maintain the life of a human being in the society to which he belongs, but finds that his means are insufficient and his strength too meager," wrote Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. "Such a person is entitled to have the state take action to protect his dignity." Since the decision was handed down, social advocacy groups have announced that they will flood the courts with individual suits aimed at proving that the welfare cuts have, indeed, reduced their clients' material state to the point of humiliation. In a sense, this is a welcome development. Instead of manipulative stories or rarified academic studies, the plaintiffs and petitioners will have to prove, systematically, with facts and figures, how government policy has forced them below the line of "human dignity." This process may be a lengthy one but it will offer the public, for the first time, a nuts and bolts analysis of what it means to be poor in Israel today. And it will force the courts to determine when the level of poverty reaches the point where it is unconstitutional.