Teach a Man to Fish

Reliance on the tradition of relief aid and charity, instead of a concerted effort by the government, may only exacerbate the poverty problem.

Idit Weiss
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Idit Weiss

The approach of the High Holidays witnesses a huge surge in food collection campaigns, boosted by the media. Huge notices in the newspapers announce that one Israeli child in three lives in poverty, as an introduction to food collection campaigns organized by non-profit associations, commercial companies and the media itself. That figure is correct. The Poverty Report indeed determined that in 2004, one-third of Israeli children come from poor families, and that the problem of poverty has spread and worsened in the past year.

What is most outrageous about the notices, however, is the erroneous assumption that a donations campaign can solve or reduce the poverty problem. Not only do these campaigns not solve poverty, they are liable to hamper an effective plan to reduce it. Reliance on the tradition of relief aid and charity, instead of a concerted effort by the government, may only exacerbate the poverty problem.

These campaigns do not provide a family with a secure and regular source of income, nor do they reduce the costs of health care and education. They can also create a feeling among the public that relief aid and charity are the effective ways for coping with poverty, and only if we are merciful enough and give money through these campaigns (and not via taxes) will poverty be solved. These campaigns are also liable to detract from the understanding that the main responsibility for solving this problem lies with the government.

The truth must be spoken. Poverty cannot be solved by charity, and many children will continue to live in poverty long after these campaigns are over. The deepening of this poverty and its worsening among children in Israel is due, first and foremost, to the continuing policy of the erosion of the welfare state: the slashing of child allowances, the erosion of stipends to families who work for low wages or families in which the breadwinner cannot find a job; the lack of enforcement of the minimum wage law; and the continuing privatization of the health care and education systems.

The public must be informed that poverty can be solved, it is not a "decree from heaven" that requires acts of kindness. Many governments around the world are succeeding, via long-term policies, to reduce the dimensions of poverty. There is a broad range of effective strategies for reducing poverty, both in the long and short term, that the government could adopt. These strategies include:

l Transfer payments: The government should cancel the massive slashing of child allowances; increase guaranteed income stipends in order to ensure that people can live in dignity; prevent further restrictions in the unemployment insurance law; and ease some of the conditions for eligibility for unemployment benefits.

l Fiscal welfare: tax credits for workers, and for parents in particular. The government should require dignified employment terms for workers: social benefits and a feeling of security and continuity.

l Arrangements that would lead to a reduction in discrimination against Arab workers in the job market.

l Investments in education. Studies show that education open to all - including the relevant professional training for integration into the work force, education whose quality is not dependent on the parents' income, that offers a real opportunity for learning to all sectors of the public - leads to a significant reduction in poverty.

With the approach of the High Holidays, it would be better for the public to channel its energies and emotions not only toward charity and kindness, but all the more so toward stern demands on the government to take proven measures to dispel poverty. Succor and charity are welcome traditions as long as they occupy a marginal (and usually unassuming) place in society; as long as there is no reliance on them as a main means for coping with poverty.

The writer is a senior lecturer at the Bob Shapell School of Social Work, Tel Aviv University.

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