The National Insurance Institute of Israel released an alarming poverty report earlier this month. The statistics are shocking, and while accusations are flying between public officials, it is still unclear what practical steps the government will take to improve the lives of the nearly 2 million people (22% of the population) who are living below the poverty line.
Here are some of the most alarming statistics published in the report:
· 1,709,300 (22%) of Israeli citizens live below the poverty line.
· 444,900 families (18.8%) are living in poverty
· 776,500 Israeli children (31%) live below the poverty line
· 5.6% of families with two earners are living below the poverty line
· An alarming 52.4% of Chareidim live below the poverty line.
· 25.1% of single parent families live below the poverty line.
· Poverty among the elderly increased from 22.1% in 2013 to 22.3% in 2014.
The poverty line is calculated based on the income, the number of family members and the current cost of living. Israeli poverty rates are nearly the highest of all OECD countries, second only to Mexico. The GINI index of inequality also showed a distressingly large gap between the incomes of Israel’s richest and poorest.
These statistics are heartbreaking and deeply disturbing, leaving government officials and NGO’s looking for solutions.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced an increase in payments to the elderly to the tune of 6,000 â‚ª per year per couple, as well as other initiatives to help the elderly succeed in the work force. In April of 2015 the minimum wage was raised from 4,300 ?â‚ª per month to 4,650 â‚ª? per month yet it is clear that a much more comprehensive approach is needed.
Milka Benziman, Yad Eliezer’s Director of Social Services, says, “Two years ago the previous finance minister made serious cuts to the monthly child allotment payments. I joined representatives of other NGO’s at a symposium at the Knesset where we heard parents begging the MK’s not to slash the allotment as they would be left without the means to feed their children. Their tragic pleas were not heeded, and hundreds of thousands of families received a major blow to their budgets. This year’s poverty report reflects that change, but I don’t need a government report to tell me about the extent of the poverty in Israel. Every single day hungry mothers and children come to my office begging for help: warm clothing, food, baby formula, and money to reconnect utilities that were cut off because of lack of payment.”
Sori Tropper, from American Friends of Yad Eliezer, adds, “For me there aren’t 2 million poor people in Israel, rather there’s Chana, who is struggling to care for her children and for her husband who hasn’t left the hospital in two months; there’s Sara, the single mother who eats only bread for days so that she can save up to add some eggs to her children’s diet; there’s David, who is working 14 hour days to try to build a business so that he can move his large family out of the small moldy basement apartment where they have been living for years. These are not statistics, they are people. They are hard-working and heart-broken and it is our obligation to do everything that we can to give them a chance to succeed.”
Latet, one of Israel’s poverty relief NGOs, believes that the official poverty report does not show the full extent of poverty in Israel. They have released an alternative poverty report that presents a clearer picture of the heartbreaking reality of Israel’s poor: children who go to sleep hungry on a regular basis, the elderly who are unable to pay for basics like medication and heating, families facing eviction and cut off utilities for lack of funds. Gilles Darmon, the chairman of Latet, commented, “It is impossible to accept the reality in which more than 30% are poor, almost a million children, and there is still no multi-year program to address this issue.”
Yad Eliezer’s wide range of programs aims to help families with their day to day struggles as well as to help them rise above their difficult circumstances and enable them to break out of the cycle of poverty.
The Yad Eliezer Big Brothers program has helped tens of thousands of youth to be productive and even thriving members of society. Youths who grew up with a parent in jail, or suffering from mental illness were given the emotional and educational support that they needed to get through a difficult childhood and go on to succeed. Rabbi Eli Ya’akobi, the Director of the program, comments, “Having a mentor during crucial years of development gives a child the confidence and self esteem needed to succeed. Our mentorees are strong and motivated in the face of the devastation that they see at home. It is deeply moving for me to see them rise above their struggles and create a life that wouldn’t have been possible without Yad Eliezer’s support.”
Rebetzin Hadassa Weisel has overseen the distribution of baby formula for over 30 years. She receives dozens of phone calls a day and makes sure that the infants that are really at risk will receive the nutrition that they need. “When babies don’t receive the nutrition that they need during the first year of life, their brain development is compromised. I know that by providing the nutrition that they need we are giving them a chance at success.”
Yad Eliezer discreetly distributes about five thousand food boxes each month to families below the poverty line, provides subsidized weddings for poor couples, funds a non-profit dental clinic, and in the past two years tens of thousands of coats and comforters have been distributed to families that have little or no heating in their homes on cold winter nights. These and other targeted interventions ease the pain of poverty and help children to stay healthy and warm enough to focus on their studies, as well as help parents face their daily challenges at work and at home.
Perhaps most impressive is Yad Eliezer’s job training program, which has helped motivated individuals to actualize their dreams by providing tuition and job training as well as micro-financing loans for small businesses.
Miriam*, a single mother who received a scholarship to nursing school through Yad Eliezer, shares, “Being able to have a proper profession means a lot to me, and it will give me the opportunity to stand on my own feet to support my family and to take care of all of their needs. As a nurse, it will be my job to save lives. You have already transformed my life and the lives of my children, but all of the lives that I save in my career will also be in your merit!”
There is a long road ahead, and long term comprehensive interventions are essential to leading the way to a brighter future for Israel’s poor. One thing is clear, Yad Eliezer has been, and will continue to be, a part of the solution.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy