Israel Sees Record Numbers in Poverty and Domestic Violence Since Start of Pandemic

'These poverty rates belong to other worlds, not Israel,' social services minister tells Haaretz, as figures show many who have never turned to government assistance are doing it for the first time during the coronavirus crisis

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A shuttered shop up for rent in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, November 2, 2020.
A shuttered shop up for rent in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, November 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The number of Israelis who turned to the welfare offices for the first time in their lives because of poverty and domestic violence reached a new high last month.

In November, 1,974 people who had never applied to the local government welfare authorities before did so because of financial problems, according to figures from the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

This number is 81 percent higher than the average from March through October, from the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Israel – which was 1,085 new cases a month. In comparison, in November 2019, only 1,228 people turned to the welfare offices for the first time in their lives, and the average for March through October of 2019 was 931 new cases a month.

Last month, the number of people suffering from domestic violence who turned to the welfare offices for the first time – most of them women – rose steeply too. Such domestic violence cases in November numbered 652, compared to only 347 new cases a month on average from March through October of this year.

This represents an 87 percent rise. In November 2019, the number of similar cases was only 378 – and the average number of cases for the previous eight months of last year was just 307.

The data reflects the effect of the second lockdown, a welfare official told Haaretz: "The lockdown broke people financially in the most severe way. Welfare offices are flooded and have no room left. Every day social workers call and tell of long lines, about people from the middle class who never in their lives were on welfare and simply collapsed.”

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Israel was one of the countries in the OECD with the lowest public spending on social services. According to the last poverty report from the National Insurance Institute, public spending on welfare services in OECD countries was an average of 20.1 percent of GDP, while in Israel it was only 16 percent, one of the 10 countries with the lowest level of spending.

Social Services Minister Itzik ShmuliCredit: Adina Wolman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

France spends 31.2 percent of its GDP on such services, followed by Belgium with 28.9 percent, Finland with 28.7 percent and Italy with 27.9 percent. At the bottom of the list is Turkey with 12.5 percent, and Mexico, spending 7.5 percent.

“We are seeing incredible pressure and the meteoric jump in areas such as domestic violence, young people at risk, families experiencing financial distress and poverty, who before the coronavirus didn’t know where the welfare office in their city was – and suddenly they find themselves knocking on its doors,”  Labor and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli told Haaretz, speaking at a conference sponsored by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel marking the international Human Rights Day. 

Shmuli said public spending on social services must be increased significantly, especially in the areas of welfare and health. 

"The numbers are something we have never seen before, and the same goes for the unemployment figures," he said. “These poverty rates belong to other worlds, not Israel.

Shmuli also argued that the budget for his ministry should be two or three times what it is to deal with the crisis that the method of adjusting allowances needs to be changed. The deadlock over Israel's budget further adds to the problem, he added.

When asked if he had managed to carry out the policies he wanted to when he joined a government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu –something he promised his voters he wouldn't – Shmuli said it was clear that if there is not a budget for 2021 then he will be unable to do what he intended when he became minister.

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