Dramatic Rise in Social Welfare Cases in Israel Since Pandemic's Onset

Hundreds of thousands of families have sought state help for the first time. Data also show 20% increase in children at risk, and a 26% spike in domestic violence

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A couple walks by a homeless man in the Israeli city of Acre, in March 2020.
A couple walks by a homeless man in the Israeli city of Acre, in March 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of families in Israel have sought the help of social welfare services for the first time, says a report issued by directors of 150 welfare service agencies across the country.

The report cites a significant spike in the number of people requiring assistance, citing a 20.4 percent rise in reports of children at risk, a 31.9 percent increase in the number of older citizens turning to welfare services for the first time, a 25.8 percent increase in domestic violence, a 21.5 percent rise in the number of calls relating to youth or young adults in distress, and an 8.4 percent increase in calls related to addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling.

These figures appear in new data collected by an organization of directors of welfare services in local authorities, an organization representing150 welfare agencies across the country. The data relate to hundreds of thousands of citizens who have appealed for help and reflect not only a dramatic increase in the number of new applications, but also in the scope of issues involved.

“The coronavirus pandemic has brought hundreds of thousands of new families to social service departments, due to the economic distress they are facing,” says organization head and social worker Tammy Barsheshet. “We are seeing a trend in which the longer the pandemic continues, the higher the number of people turning to us. This includes all population segments, including the ultra-Orthodox and Arab population, as well as different geographic regions, unrelated to the economic strength of specific local authorities.”

The numbers vary by city. Thus, for example, there was a 20 percent rise in domestic violence in Ashdod, with a 15 percent rise in Jerusalem, a 30 percent increase in Bat Yam, with 50 percent in Dimona and 100 percent in the ultra-Orthodox city of Betar Ilit.

In Be’er Sheva there was a 35 percent increase in reports of addiction, with rates of 50 percent in Carmiel and 17 percent in Dimona. Ashdod had a 25 percent rise in the number of children at risk, with a 20 and 35 percent increase in Deir al-Asad and Eilat, respectively.

Reports regarding the elderly show that most calls relate to feelings of anxiety and depression, loneliness, decreased functioning and a need for basic assistance, including delivery of food and medications. There were reported increases in hoarding and fears of leaving the house, even in the absence of instructions to remain indoors. There was also an increase in requests for help in writing wills and increased suicidal thinking.

The directors of social services reported a significant spike in the number of youths and young adults in distress, after experiencing social isolation making many more prone to anxiety and emotional distress. Many young people often roam the streets for lack of any educational framework. There is a concomitant rise in the number of young people threatening or attempting to commit suicide.

There are also reports of inappropriate sexual behavior due to exposure to offensive content on social media, alongside a aworrisome emotional state among youths due to anxiety. Many young people have no social framework, a problem blamed for  drug and alcohol abuse. There are more youths living on the street or leaving their homes or other frameworks, as well as more soldiers going AWOL due to anxiety over financial distress at home. Religious and ultra-Orthodox communities report a slackening of functioning among young people who have not had a proper framework for a long time and cannot deal with distance learning. Some of these youths respond to the situation by isolating or distancing themselves.

Welfare directors say the latest period has led to a significant rise in the number of children requiring emergency housing.stemming from reports of assaults on minors, including sexual assault, even in well-established communities. The directors say this problem requires the immediate establishment of emergency centers for homeless youths and young adults. There are large numbers of such people, many having lost their jobs and apartments.

With regard to children at risk, welfare services report that many parents are emotionally incapable of looking after their children, leaving them lonely, depressed and suicidal. There are reports of a significant rise in the numbers of criminal offenses against helpless children. Some go unreported, and are disclosed only after children return to school.

Drug and alcohol abuse, as well as gambling, serves as an escape mechanism for many of the people who turn to welfare services. Welfare directors say that rehabilitated people are at risk of regressing and require more assistance. There have been reports of increases in consumption of alcohol and addictive drugs among youths. In some communities this includes younger children exposed to these problems at home by parents or siblings. 

The increased anxiety and economic distress, as well as the pressure and uncertainty, have led to an increase in requests for divorce proceedings. Welfare workers attribute this to intensified conflicts and difficulties in establishing borders and managing couple or family relationships. Many families have difficulties in meeting rental payments, forcing many out of their homes, and in turn causing tensions that lead to divorce. 

Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, said that these numbers are very worrisome. “We’re concerned about these social phenomena, which have intensified during the pandemic, as well as the future of these youths, with fears of increased drug addiction and concerns about new homeless people and increased divorce rates. We’ll do all we can to ensure that welfare budgets aren’t affected, despite the political situation, and try to increase the resources for helping these people.” 

Bibas urgest the formulation of a national plan to handle the issue, with an emphasis on rehabilitating people affected by the crisis. Barsheshet says that even when the crisis is over there will be great pressure on social services, due to post-traumatic effects. “Resources must be allocated to deal with the anticipated situation,” she says.

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