And Again, the Festival of Poverty

From now on we will be celebrating the plight of the weak, soothing our consciences twice a year.

Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan
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Shahar Ilan
Shahar Ilan

The date on which the National Insurance Institute's poverty statistics are published, two days ago, is one of the more important and established ones on the secular Israeli calendar. Over the years it has won a special place for itself alongside other important secular holidays - such as the Festival of Love, Hebrew Book Week and the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. It can be said that just as the Jewish National Fund has Tu B'Shvat (a type of Arbor Day), the NII has the Festival of Poverty.

This is the day when we recall the plight of the weak members of our society, devote media attention to them, soothe our social consciences and fulfill the obligation of being shocked. It's an important social mechanism that enables us to feel at peace with ourselves during the rest of the year and to push poverty to the margins of our awareness.

Haaretz reporter Ruth Sinai reported at the beginning of the year that during the past decade, Israeli governments have devoted only one discussion to the subject of poverty. This historical event took place on November 30, 2003, in the wake of the publication of the annual NII poverty report, and lasted for exactly nine minutes.

The Netanyahu legacy

When Benjamin Netanyahu served as finance minister, there was particularly impressive growth in the poverty industry, and the Festival of Poverty became especially important. Thus the day also turned into one on which we identify with the Netanyahu legacy. There is no question that the publication of the report comes at an inconvenient time for Netanyahu, just when his popularity is skyrocketing. On the other hand, we can reasonably assume that Defense Minister Amir Peretz did not need to have the public reminded now that he did not exactly devote much time in recent months to solving the poverty problem.

The empty refrigerator

The length of the festival, which exists mainly in the media, ranges from 12 to 48 hours. What determines the length of time we will dedicate to poverty? Mainly the question of when another topic will rise to the top of the agenda and push it to the margins in the newspapers - a terrorist attack, for example.

The two typical photographs without which the tabloid press has difficulty fulfilling its obligation to the Festival of Poverty are that of the old lady foraging in the garbage cans, and the one of the empty refrigerator. There's no escaping it; hunger is the symbol of poverty and it photographs well. Even if the poor have other problems - for instance, when they are ill and have no money to care for themselves - an empty refrigerator is much more photogenic than an empty medicine cupboard.

Twice a year. In the past, the NII used to publish its poverty report toward the end of the civil calendar year (as opposed to the Jewish year, which usually begins in September), and the statistics were published a year after the fact. The result: We were shocked each time by the data from the previous year.

Starting this year, however, the NII is publishing the poverty statistics twice a year, enabling us to receive relatively up-to-date information. So at the beginning of this year and on the eve of the elections, we received (to the undisguised glee of Shas and the Labor Party) updated statistics for the first half of 2005. On Wednesday we received the complete data for last year. This means that from now on, we will be celebrating the Festival of Poverty twice a year.

We can wonder whether it is logical to publish the findings of the NII when the Knesset is in recess, which makes it difficult for members of the opposition and Labor Party "rebels" to express shock with the appropriate speed and efficiency. On the other hand, only nine MKs bothered to come to the plenum discussion about the previous poverty report, which was published in January, so perhaps it makes no difference in any case.

A sample of typical reactions to the statistics, for the convenience of MKs and public figures: "The statistics are among the most shocking, harsh and serious that Israel has ever known"; "The Israeli government starves children"; "It is impossible to tell children, the elderly and the disabled to go out to work"; "The government is obtuse and unfeeling"; "The government is leading the future generation to devastation."

Poverty by choice?

Several basic statistics about poverty in this country: One out of every five families is poor, one out of every four Israelis is poor, and one out of every three children is poor. One out of every four families with children - and one out of every four families where the head of the household is elderly - are poor. Only one out of every eight families where the head of the household works is poor, but two-thirds of the families in which the head of the household does not work, are poor. Only 3 percent of families in which both parents work are poor.

According to Finance Ministry statistics, two-thirds of the poor are ultra-Orthodox or Arabs. These are populations that are characterized by a large number of children and low participation in the job market. This fact sharpens the debate over the question of poverty by choice, each time the poverty statistics are published. This question asks whether assistance to large families does not encourage poverty and avoidance of work. A new and interesting question is how the drastic decline in the fertility rate among Muslims will affect the prevalence of poverty in that sector.

Where to draw the line

There is no doubt that the question of who is poor and how to measure poverty is of great significance. Prof. Avraham Doron of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem writes in an article called "The definition and measurement of poverty - the unsolved issue," that any attempt to determine an objective and scientific poverty line is an illusion. He says that in the final analysis any determination of such a line is related to political values. In Israel, for example, the poverty line has to a great extent been adapted to the size of the living allotments paid by the NII.

An example of the problematic nature of measuring poverty: The poverty line is defined as 50 percent of the "median available income." Without depressing the readers with the question of what median available income is, it is quite clear that if the standard of living rises, this income increases as well. In any case, the higher the standard of living, the more poor people there will be.

What does a person's monthly income have to be for him to be considered poor? If you are a single person - less than NIS 1,900; if you are a couple, less than NIS 3,000; a family of four is poor if its income totals less than NIS 4,800; and a family of eight, less than NIS 7,800. But can one say that a couple with two children that earns NIS 4,900 is not poor?

In 2002, Ruth Sinai reported that if the poverty line were 50 percent higher, about one-third of families in Israel would be considered poor. Two years later, in 2004, a senior official at the Bank of Israel claimed that the rate of poverty in Israel is 30 percent higher than what is reported by the NII.

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