March 8, 2007
Poverty in Israel: The divide deepens between the haves and have-nots
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Zionist organizations like the Jewish Agency and the Foreign Ministry don't like people to start talking about poverty when they want to establish the appearance of a normal country, so I thought there was not much poverty," said Darmon, who works in finance. "But when I arrived, I said, 'Wow, there is a problem.'"
In 1996, Darmon established Latet, the country's first and largest food bank, which is headquartered in Tel Aviv. With the help of 114 local organizations, Latet collects and distributes 3,500 tons of free food a year to about 30,000 to 40,000 impoverished families throughout Israel. Demand for Latet's services has grown 300 percent in the past three years, which Darmon said is an ominous signal.
"When you have such a jump in a Western society like Israel, it means something very major is happening in the society, something has collapsed in the involvement of the state in social issues," he said.
Some say the current economic disequilibrium in Israel can be traced to the neoconservative fiscal policies of the Likud Party, acting at the behest of then-Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who believed that Israel's economy had become too bloated and bureaucratic to compete in the global market. Netanyahu's remedy: Cut spending, reduce dependence on government services and reduce inflation. While Netanyahu is no longer the finance minister, the same approach remains in place today.
The resultant budget cuts that began in 2002 included the elimination of food subsidies, a decrease in child allowances, increasingly stringent eligibility standards for welfare, the elimination of many social programs for the elderly and a reduction in welfare benefits. The cuts effectively shredded the social safety net, leaving many families unprepared for the misery that would follow, social policy activists say.
But since the early 1990s, with the mass arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the growth of the high-tech sector, Israel has seen itself become an increasingly capitalist society, where the economically strong survive and those in the middle and lower rungs have had some trouble adjusting.
Among the hardest hit have been the elderly, single-parent households and large families, which in Israel usually means either Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Charedim. According to the National Insurance Institute, about two-thirds of families below the poverty line are either Charedim or Arabs.
Charedi women are the focus of a unique employment initiative in a West Bank community that has produced encouraging results there and elsewhere. Charedi men are being trained in professions ranging from computer programmers to bus drivers.
As for Israeli Arabs, results and programming have been less dramatic. Many, however, have participated in recent government welfare-to-work pilot programs modeled on the American Wisconsin Works program.
In contemporary Israel, minimum-wage salaries -- about $12,800 a year for a couple with two children -- are insufficient to pull a family out of poverty. As a result, even many dual-income earners find themselves setting stark spending priorities for themselves and their families. They sometimes have to choose between buying food or medicine or paying the rent.
Avraham Sobolson, 55, said he often struggled with the dilemma of buying food or medicine to treat his ailments -- including physical problems, such as diabetes and mental woes like schizophrenia -- until Food for the Disadvantaged began delivering weekly packages to his one-room apartment in the Hadar Yosef neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
The former professional weightlifter and wrestler with a round, thick face and bald head now is confined to a wheelchair because of a blood disease that affects his legs. Sobolson lives in a dark, dank ground-floor apartment with bare floors and little furniture -- a bed, a couple of plastic chairs, a teetering narrow plywood wardrobe and a shelving unit stacked with medicine bottles and gauzes. On the walls of peeling paint hang what he calls his certificates that speak of his past as an athlete and coach. A thick layer of grime clings to the walls and floor.
Sobolson lives on $540 a month in disability payments and volunteers teaching tai chi from his wheelchair to groups of the mentally ill. He is fighting the National Insurance Institute for an allowance that would let him hire an assistant to help him clean his apartment and bathe. The money also would pay for taxis, so he could more easily reach the class he teaches outside Tel Aviv.
"The National Insurance Institute has no feelings about sick people," he said. "Do you know how many people there are like me out there?"
Seniors, Survivors Feel Sting
The elderly have also disproportionately felt the sting of cuts in social spending. Unable to save for pensions, some senior citizens find themselves living off monthly checks of roughly $400 from the National Insurance Institute. As they age and become more frail and ill, their costs for medicine and nursing assistance rise, while their incomes shrink.
There is no mandatory pension law in Israel, although Finance Minister Abraham Hirschson again called for one as part of his economic reform plan announced in late January.
Among the impoverished elderly are many Holocaust survivors. Noah Flug, who heads an umbrella group of Holocaust survivor organizations in Israel, estimated that about one-quarter of Israel's 250,000 survivors are living in poverty.
"There is lots of focus in Israel on those killed in the Holocaust, but those who lived through it are forgotten," Flug said.
The social welfare crisis in Israel was reflected in the 2006 national elections. Instead of national security taking center stage, the social gaps were a dominant theme in the campaign. Likud was roundly punished through what was seen in part as backlash against Netanyahu's economic policies -- the party landed only 12 seats in the Knesset, compared to 36 during the 16th session. Labor returned to its quasi-socialist roots, promising to deal with the growing gap between rich and poor.
But a few months after the new government came to power with Labor as a partner, the war with Hezbollah broke out and the national focus again shifted to security issues.