Poverty – or not

The inadequacies of the government’s methods of collecting data distort the picture of who is poor and why.

Poverty in J'lem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Poverty in J'lem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
According to the latest report on poverty for 2010 issued by the National Insurance Institute, based on information provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, poverty among residents of east Jerusalem is very high and getting worse.
Official figures show that “78% of residents and 84% of children” living in east Jerusalem are “living under the poverty line.” Actually, this was a mistake in reporting; the figure is for households, not residents.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel condemned Israeli policies; Mayor Nir Barkat tried to explain this as a result of social and educational problems in the Arab sector. Unfortunately, however, no one challenged the report itself.
Although what is called “east Jerusalem” is composed of many different communities and neighborhoods, both Jewish and Arab, the report refers only to Arab communities, such as in the Old City, Shuafat, Isawiya, Jebl Mukaber, Sur Bahir, A-Tur (Mount of Olives), Wadi al-Joz, Beit Hanina, Atarot, Anatot, Sheikh Jarrah, Kafr Akab, Beit Safafa and Silwan.
Moreover, since the report does not distinguish between these communities, there is no way of comparing them. This is critical in order to know whether the figures are accurate, and if they reflect a pattern of hardship and discrimination, and deception.
These neighborhoods include tens of thousands of newly built illegal Arab homes, multi-story apartment and office buildings. Who owns them and are the owners and their families receiving NII benefits and free services? Are municipalities providing services to communities that claim poverty based on incorrect data from the CBS? Does the CBS have a political agenda, as some claim, to distort and exaggerate the problem?
It turns out that only 1.25% of Arabs living in east Jerusalem receive NII benefits. If poverty among Arab residents and citizens is really so widespread, as claimed, why don’t more request assistance? Is it because they don’t want to be caught in fraud, which would be a criminal offense?
If this is true, and poverty claims are a myth, why does the government support them? And why do Israeli NGOs like ACRI and social policy think tanks like Adva tout them?
The NII’s report on poverty is based on data provided by CBS home surveys. These figures are based on what residents report as salaries and income. If they are employed and do not receive or report wages, or receive income from other sources, there is no way of verifying what they say. Moreover, there is a question if samples on which income surveys are based are too small to be statistically significant.
The CBS and NII report do not include data on other factors that would indicate a higher income than reported from the hidden (“black”) economy such as:
(1) Imputed income from living in one’s own, the value of the home, and investments in other building projects in Israel, and Israeli and PA controlled areas
(2) Vehicle ownership and multiple vehicle ownership (3) Number of wives and children, which may involve multiple dwellings for different parts of a polygamous family structure
(4) Support of (and from) other family members and relatives living inside and outside Israel
(5) Travel abroad as a measure of consumption and/or business abroad
(6) Transfers of funds to and from abroad
(7) Foreign bank accounts
(8) Business enterprises and partnerships
(9) Transfers of funds from European states and organizations, and NGOs
(10) Income from working children
The inadequacies of the government’s methods of collecting data distort the picture of who is poor and why. Without a wider set of criteria it is impossible to know who is really poor, and who is not.
This problem is rampant among Arab municipalities throughout Israel, most of which are bankrupt and require government assistance because of corruption and unwillingness to collect property taxes.
Despite declarations of need these municipalities are filled with large and often luxurious homes, office buildings and mosques.
Many residents drive the latest cars and most have cable and satellite dishes.
Government-enabled scams costs billions – not only in lost taxes, but direct and indirect subsidies and transfer payments to individuals, families and communities who claim to be poor but are not.
Failing communities in which young men and women refuse to participate in national service projects that would benefit their own families and neighborhoods can make this a matter of civic and national responsibility and pride. Receiving benefits from the NII and other government agencies should be a quid pro quo.
Help the needy, of course. But who really is in need? And why does Israel pay for “poverty” that may not exist?
The writer is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.