OPINION: Poverty takes shine off Israel’s achievements

OPINION: Poverty takes shine off Israel’s achievements

Anna Shloman
Anna Shloman

By Anna Shloman, Resource development manager, Latet

Israeli recently marked its 66th anniversary. While birthdays are a time for celebration, they are also time for reflection. We hear success stories from the Israeli high-tech industry and delight in the spirit of innovation and endurance of the country’s economy.

We praise ourselves for being a member of the OECD, we recall past battles and former victories. Our joy is justified, but not complete.

Over the past decade, Israel’s economic activity has increased steadily. Companies such as Waze, Wix, Soda Stream and many more are making a name around the world.

Google, Intel, Microsoft, and other giants are working in Israel, contributing to its “second Silicon Valley” status. Trade with Israel, despite BDS and product labeling regulations, is also rising, reaching more than £3.2bn with the UK alone.

But despite the positive image we try to portray, things are not all they seem: Israel has the highest poverty rate in the developed world at almost 21 percent; the number of poor children in Israel rose by 60 percent in the past decade; and 72 percent of working-age poor are actually employed.

Research by Latet shows 95 percent of people who seek assistance from various non-profits report they regularly waive essential needs as they are forced to make painful choices: food or medication, paying the electric bill or buying books for school.

In more than 300,000 families in Israel, mothers count their pennies in order to buy bread and milk. And thousands of Holocaust survivors eat powdered soup from food boxes brought in by volunteers.

Merom Hagalil, where a third of households are under the care of welfare services
Merom Hagalil, where a third of households are under the care of welfare services

Much of this problem is the result of government policies of the past 20 years. Cutting welfare pensions, a low minimum wage, and failure to impose labour laws on one hand and raising regressive taxes while reducing progressive taxes on the other are traits and products of anti-social policy.

Add inaccessibility to public housing and an inability to provide proper education for low-income families and you get a dangerous cocktail that worsens poverty and widens social gaps.

Past struggles not forgotten, Israeli society today faces one of its most crucial challenges. Our middle class is eroding, and while there are a few who join the upper crust there are far too many who can barely afford bread.

Most of these new poor are children, and the statistics are abrasive – every third child in Israel is poor, and poverty among children is growing fastest.

By failing to act now, we are raising more and more generations into poverty, and pushing the solution farther and farther away.

There is a solution, however, and all it requires are a will and a plan. At the end of the 1990s, Tony Blair committed to defeating child poverty within a generation, with an interim goal of cutting the number of children living below the poverty line in half by 2010.

While some may say the results didn’t match the ambition, poverty among children in Britain was still reduced dramatically.

Israel has a lot of will and a lot of heart. At Latet we see it daily with more than 6,500 dedicated volunteers within Israel who give 270,000 hours of service every year to fight poverty and bring change. They collect and deliver food, visit and tend to the elderly, fix up people’s homes, offer “soup and story” activities at schools and mentor and encourage small business entrepreneurs.

What Israel lacks is a cohesive budgeted government plan with a long-term perspective. This plan has first and foremost to deal with poverty and social gaps by involving all government ministries and setting specific goals. There are budgetary goals for the deficit and for growth – there should also be one for the reduction of poverty.

If we act now, the next decade will be marked by Israel achieving the average rate of poverty in OECD, rather than gracing the top of the list.

If we can come together as a society, across the political field, we will attain our greatest reward and win our greatest triumph.

Until then, we at Latet have no choice but to improve our model of operation and continue to harness the resources of Israeli society, as well as Jewish congregations around the world, and do all we can to reach as many needy families as possible.

In the words of Tony Blair: “This is not a battle we have to win, it’s a battle we can’t afford to lose.”

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