Talking about 'poverty' is passe: Today, what the trendy bemoan is 'hunger.' Why? Because the media and the many and myriad associations that address these problems are locked in a battle over ratings, and if you do not inflame and howl, you will not get any screen time. 'Hunger' is much more attention-grabbing than mere 'poverty.'
Everybody knows perfectly well that Israel does not have a million hungry people. In fact, it has none, aside from a few exceptions that need individual attention. But ratings are king, and they rule the use of language, which is becoming more and more extreme by the day.
Not only is the manipulation of the number of hungry biased and misleading, but the poverty figures released by the National Insurance Institute this week also beg questions. We are told that the proportion of impoverished households dropped from 20.6 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2006. Has poverty really diminished? If so, how does that mesh with the fact that the gap between rich and poor widened? And is it actually possible that 54 percent of Arab households are poor?
Before addressing these conundrums, we must note that the 'poverty' rate that the NII presents does not gauge the problem accurately. It measures something else entirely: 'relative poverty.'
Say that the income of every family in Israel were to increase by 30 percent. That would do wonderful things for the standard of living among the poorest, but it would not change the poverty rate as measured by the NII one whit. Here is another example: Say that the income of the richest decile ?(10 percent?) increased by 30 percent. Again, there would be no change in the poverty rate, because of the way it is measured.
But if the average income of the middle class ?(the 5th and 6th deciles?) were to increase by 30 percent, then the rate of poverty would increase sharply, because the median income would increase. In other words, the NII gauge is deeply flawed.
It also leads to misleading conclusions. Some say that Israel's economic growth has benefited only the rich but not improved the condition of the poor. That is not true. The income of the lowest four deciles ?(40 percent?) rose in 2006, as did the average income, so growth did improve the standard of living among society's weaker echelons.
Yet at the same time, it is true that this growth increased the gap between rich and poor, because the income of the rich increased by more than the average.
The number of 'working poor' − families with at least one breadwinner that nevertheless remain impoverished − is increasing, people wail, but again for no reason. When employment expands significantly, when 372,000 people join the work force in four years, obviously some of them are going to be earning low pay. In other words, they used to belong to the category of 'unemployed and poor,' and now they have joined the category of 'working poor,' even if the family?s income doubled from NIS 2,000 a month to NIS 4,000. Now, however, the family has a future: It has a way to advance. And over time, its earnings will increase and lift the family over the poverty line.
There are many other problems with the way poverty is measured. Nobody working 'under the table' (i.e. dodging tax?) would be dense enough to divulge that to surveyors, which explains the absurd finding that 54 percent of Arab families are poor. If you have visited Arab towns and villages, you know that figure is exaggerated.
Another problem is that the income measured in the survey does not include 'income in kind,' such as discounts on municipal taxes, public transport or the kids' tuition. It does not include electricity at half-price. Nor is there any measurement of public services, mainly health and education, granted by the government or the local authority practically for free to the poor. All these work to reduce the actual dimensions of poverty.
Nor does the measurement method consider the fact that one family owns an apartment, while another does not, and must pay rent.
The conclusion from all the above is clear: It is time to change the way we measure poverty. We should adopt an absolute gauge that examines whether a family can actually buy a normative basket of goods. The change in the measurement method will not change the dimensions of poverty, but it will create an accurate correlation between the poverty rate and the economic situation of the poor.But in these times, when the problem of poverty ?(which requires serious attention?) has turned into a public relations campaign, substantive reasoning will be devoured in the flame of demagoguery and rhetoric.
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