Charting the Difficult Road Away From Poverty

The Social Affairs Ministry’s Empowerment Center in Safed, one of 27 across the country, does everything from readying resumes to restoring confidence in an effort to end a cycle of dependency.

Noa Navat
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Safed apartment blocks: “You’re stuck in the decile you were born in because of the limited opportunities you have.”Credit: Yuval Tebol
Noa Navat

At first glance, it’s hard to believe that Asnat Aberjil, an impressive and eloquent woman with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s on the way, has had a an arduous life. Aberjil, 43, was born in Safed, one of many children of an alcoholic father who would beat them; three were sent to foster families. Aberjil left school in ninth grade to help support the family, married young to a man she describes as “hard and primitive,” brought five children of her own into this world, divorced and worked as a cleaner, simultaneously passing her matriculation exams and then acquiring a bachelor’s degree in social sciences.

Despite the education she obtained, she couldn’t find work in her field “until finally I felt desperate,” she said. “I wanted to improve my and my children’s financial situation, to leave a life of poverty and accepting handouts.”

In 2013, Aberjil came to the Empowerment Center in Safed to learn how to find an appropriate job. She learned to write a resume and present herself in a job interview, and was hired by a school for at-risk youth in Safed. Now she dreams about finishing her master’s degree and buying the public housing apartment she lives in with her children. “I received amazing support here,” says Aberjil. “We went hand in hand through all the stages; they gave me strength and power to leave home.”

The Empowerment Center is a project of the Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, which operates 27 such centers in 17 local authorities all over the country. The goal is to improve the financial and employment situation of families who get help from the welfare authorities — and to help them sever this connection, as much as possible, and escape the cycle of poverty.

This task is particularly hard in Safed. This Upper Galilee city is ranked in the fourth socioeconomic decile out of 10 and has a 14.1% unemployment rate, almost twice the national average. The city has been becoming much more ultra-Orthodox in recent years, which means population growth is twice the national average. More than a quarter of the residents are clients of social service authorities, compared with a national average of 20.5%.

Start with work

The philosophy behind the Empowerment Centers is that the way out of poverty starts with finding work but that it doesn’t end there. The staff don’t make do with just teaching how to write a resume, but also help their clients to build their self-confidence and to utilize their legal rights to proper medical care.

“Poverty is a systemic problem without magical solutions,” says Danny Koren, the head of the social services department in the Safed municipality. “It’s a mental problem and sometimes multigenerational, passed from parents to their children and so forth. There’s a lot of knowledge about the causes of poverty, but no real guidelines for how to get a family out of it.”

The main difference between the work of the social services department and the Empowerment Centers is their goals. While welfare authorities deal with specific problems like food, grants to single parents and so forth, the Empowerment Center staffs work with clients holistically. As the Chinese proverb goes, the welfare department provides the fish, while the Empowerment Centers give them a hook to catch them with.

Poverty makes the social problems worse, says Koren. The tension it creates affects other areas, leading to an increased risk of domestic violence and making it harder for a couple to maintain a normal relationship. “While the welfare authorities deal with existing problems, we are trying to change the situation so the problems won’t appear. At the same time there’s a need to change policy, for flexibility by the government in dealing with these people so regulations don’t keep them from going out to work,” he says.

Studies conducted in recent years have shown how difficult it is for people to extract themselves from poverty. One conducted by the State Revenue Administration in the Finance Ministry found that social mobility in Israel has been on the decline. Based on wages earned by over a million Israelis, the study found that between 2003 and 2009 the chance of a person in the lowest 10% of the wage scale —where the top income in 2009 was just 3,312 shekels ($839) a month — to pull themselves out of poverty fell. The study, which followed people for six years, found that some 65% of those in the lowest decile in any given year were still there the year after.

“We call it the sticky-floor effect, “ says Prof. Dalia Mor, dean of the faculty of behavioral sciences at the College of Management . “You’re stuck in the decile you were born in because of the limited opportunities you have and because of society’s attitude towards you .... This dream, that if you work hard you can achieve everything, is false. Yes, it’s possible you can advance, but you won’t reach the same place someone with means will reach.”

“Poverty is usually something you’re born into. True, there are people who lose their job and deteriorate, but in Israel that is less common than in the United States and Europe. When you’re born to a poor family, the means the family has to help you escape poverty are limited. When you need to fight for your existence and over food, there’s no time for luxuries,” she says. Most parents live outside the city centers and many don’t have cars, so they can’t send their children to programs that would help them, she adds.

Another problem is the poor have a different self-image than those with means, and this self-image makes it hard for them to progress.

Culture of poverty

The people who come to the Empowerment Centers start off in the local welfare departments. After social workers identify those with the potential for rising out of poverty, they are interviewed and paid a home visit to confirm their suitability. “We locate people with an optimistic perspective, who know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, who are willing to change their lives,” says Koren. “It’s not always possible and not every family can handle the process. There are also those who drop out since after years of poverty, such a revolution can be threatening.”

Established in Safed in April 2012, the center is located in a modest building near the pedestrian mall in the center of town and has only four staff led by director Gidi Abramowich. This minimalism is part of the model: Few expenses and relying on the help of the local aid organizations.

The staff operates as brokers to connect their clients with organizations already operating in Safed. The hardest part often is to change the person’s way of thinking, says social worker Rita Rodin-Finkelman. There are fears, low self-esteem, often a lack of training. There are people here who have lived in poverty all their lives and have depended on allowances and are scared of losing them, she says. “There are Haredim who come to us who don’t know how to combine employment with their way of life, to observe the commandments and also work. We run into people whose economic situation was good but when it became problematic they found themselves helpless. Their capabilities were lost along the way so they need to find what they had,” she says.

Each Empowerment Center operates slightly differently, depending on the characteristics of the local population. In Bat Yam, for example, a major goal is to help families pay off their gray market debts. But in general the work is quite similar in all the centers, says Nurit Weisberg Nakash, the national supervisor for family and individual social services in the ministry, who is responsible for the centers. “The voices of the poor are not heard in Israel, and we are trying to change this,” she says. “We put the client at the center —hey know what is good for them, and we need to be at their side and to make their lives more meaningful,.”

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