As Coronavirus Crisis Rages, Israel's Treasury Slashes Program for Poor Families

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Social Services Minister Ofir Akunis, left, helping to distribute food to needy families in Tel Aviv.
Social Services Minister Ofir Akunis, left, helping to distribute food to needy families in Tel Aviv, April 2020.Credit: Megeg Gozani
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The Finance Ministry has slashed funding for a flagship social service program for needy families by 30 percent. The decision comes despite a spike in the country’s jobless rate, resulting from the lockdown imposed last month to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

The social service program, which was launched in 2015, has had a budget of 100 million shekels ($28 million) and has provided the neediest families with 7,000 shekels ($1,950) a year as well as the services of a social worker. Following objections over proposed cuts to service provided by the social workers, the financial assistance was reduced instead.

The program has been used by 104 local governments whose populations are ranked at the lowest socioeconomic levels and has also served disadvantaged neighborhoods in the country’s four largest cities.

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It helps families obtain social benefits, operates employment and community-based programs and has also been providing a two-year financial assistance package. Last month the Finance Ministry informed the Social Services Ministry that, in light of reductions in the operations of all government ministries, cuts would also be made to the program as of this month, on the grounds that it would be difficult in any event to operate it at full spend due to restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. A fifth of Israeli families live below the poverty line, the highest rate among OECD countries, the grouping of the world’s developed economies.

Although they don’t currently have face-to-face contact with their clients, the social workers remain in touch with the families, but the financial benefits, which have helped with debt payments and the purchase of household items, will be reduced for now, and some families won’t receive any assistance at all.

Responding for this article, the Finance Ministry said that it and the Social Services Ministry “are working together to provide as many social services as they can during this challenging period. Based on decisions made by professionals at the Social Services Ministry, some services cannot be provided in full now. The maximum level at which this program that can be operated is currently 70 percent of its normal level. The ministry’s budget was increased following the coronavirus emergency, mainly to assist families at risk, to prevent exposure to the virus.”

The Social Services Ministry said it is working to provide the best possible service within the limitations imposed by the Health Ministry.

A study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies found that 42 percent of the financial benefits of the program were being used to meet household needs (including electricity and furniture), 28 percent for training and employment counseling and 10 percent toward the payment of debt. A coalition of social service and civil rights organizations called last week upon Social Services Minister Ofir Akunis to prevent the cuts.

“These families have no backup or emergency resources, and their dependence on the system is great in normal times, let alone during an emergency,” they wrote. “Particularly now, with rising unemployment and a lack of income, with no settings for children and when tensions at home are increasing, the presence of professionals is critical, and their absence could lead to an increase in violence and in the scope of populations that are at risk.”

Social worker Dorit Biran Deckelbaum from the Forum for Combating Poverty, one of the groups involved in approaching Akunis, said social welfare personnel are needed now more than ever.

Preparing Passover food parcels in Betar Ilit, April 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“Coronavirus is affecting not only people’s health, but their socioeconomic situation as well. We see that the government and Finance Ministry are not sufficiently aware of the social welfare implications for this population, particularly the harsh consequences of the crisis for people who were already dealing with poverty before the virus struck. People living in poverty are the first to be fired, they lack resources set aside for emergencies and they have to deal with a number of consequences on their families – overcrowded conditions, health problems and children who are back home from various institutions, without being able to offer them any opportunities,”she said.

“It’s absurd that now of all times, the ministry is slashing programs for families living in poverty and who are at risk, instead of using the existing infrastructure of this program to provide a comprehensive solution for needy families and to meet the needs of people filing the large number of requests that are now flooding welfare service [offices],” she added.

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