Single Moms in Israel Campaign to Change Laws That Keep Them Poor

The proportion of single mothers who work has risen by about 15 percentage points over the past 13 years – but the proportion of single-parent families below the poverty line has remained unchanged.

Nir Kafri

It’s been 13 years since then-Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut welfare payments and Vicki Knafo led a protest march by single mothers from Mitzpeh Ramon to Jerusalem. Since then, according to a new study by the National Insurance Institute, the proportion of single mothers who work has risen by about 15 percentage points – but the proportion of single-parent families below the poverty line has remained unchanged.

In 2015, 81 percent of single mothers worked. But just as in 2002, a quarter of them were poor.

The main reason for this is that the minute a single mother earns more than a minimal wage, she loses her right to NII child-support benefits.

The study, by Esther Toledano of the NII, focused on divorcees whose ex-husbands don’t pay child support. These women – some 17,000 people – receive a small child-support payment from the NII, averaging about 2,000 shekels ($520) a month, or roughly 20 percent of the average wage. But on average, their income is only a third of what it was before their divorce.

There are currently 130,000 single-parent families in Israel; every twelfth child lives in such a family. In total, 12.5 percent of families are single-parent, the fifth-highest rate in the OECD. Among immigrant families, the rate is double.

At a conference on Thursday hosted by Yedid, the Association for Community Empowerment, speakers discussed the economic, social and bureaucratic barriers facing single parents. Those present included single mothers, who have once again organized a protest movement. They want to change what they say is their image as lazy parasites. But above all, they want to change the laws that keep them from earning a dignified living.

“I left a battered women’s shelter after my husband tried to kill me. Now, when I’m fighting to rehabilitate my life, the state is violent toward me,” said Buba Levy, one of the founders of the movement, Hakol Hanashi.

One obstacle is the child support law, under which the NII child-support stipend decreases as a woman’s earnings rise and vanishes entirely once they exceed a certain threshold. For a woman with one child, the cut-off point is 5,489 shekels a month; with two children, it’s 6,282 shekels.

In many cases, this means it doesn’t pay to work: The 2,000-shekel stipend and the accompanying discounts are worth around 5,000 shekels in total, and someone who doesn’t work has no daycare expenses.

Etti Nahmias, 35, of Tel Aviv, is a single mother with two children, aged 1 and 6. She works two jobs, as a nursery school teacher and a photographer, and gets nothing from the NII.

“I pay taxes, I’m tearing myself apart working, and because I have 1,000 shekels more than the minimum, I’m not entitled to child support from the NII,” she said. Consequently, she has no money for essentials like baby formula, “and I’m living with my parents because I have no money. It’s as if the state were telling me, ‘Be poor, don’t work.’”

In fact, over 60 percent of single mothers work part-time. Many would like to work more, but don’t because it would mean losing their NII benefits.

Thus one of the main demands formulated by Levy and Ran Melamed, Yedid’s deputy director, is for the state to pay the full 2,000-shekel stipend to every single mother who earns less than the average wage. Melamed said this would cost about 70 million shekels a year and would significantly reduce the number of single-parent families living in poverty.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz is currently pushing legislation to increase the amount single mothers can earn without losing their child-support benefit. The bill, which would cost about 100 million shekels a year, would slow the rate at which the benefit declines, from 60 to 27 percent of each additional shekel earned.

Katz accused MK Eli Alalouf, chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, of stalling the bill in committee. Alalouf counter-charged that the bill won’t actually help most single mothers, because it will be financed by cutting their income support payments.

Another issue is that Netanyahu’s 2003 reform not only slashed benefits, but also made it harder to qualify for welfare. Thus while 53 percent of single-parent families received NII stipends in 2000, only 30 percent did so in 2015 – which helps explain why poverty rates remained unchanged.

Melamed said that eligibility criteria for many benefits are too narrow. For instance, a single mother is entitled to subsidized summer camps for her children only if she started a new job that year, or if she works full-time. And even with the subsidies, the camps are often unaffordable.

Moreover, the criteria are often impractical. For instance, single mothers are entitled to state-funded professional training. But they must pay the thousands of shekels in tuition themselves and then await reimbursement – something many can’t afford.

Still another problem is that only single mothers with three or more children are entitled to public housing, although today, most single-parent families have only one child. Melamed and Levy want the state to increase rental subsidies for single mothers who aren’t entitled to public housing by at least 30 percent.

Galia Yisraeli, 44, is raising two children aged 7 and 8. She works part-time, earns 4,200 shekels a month and receives no housing assistance.

“The system is simply bending me until I break,” she said. “My evening’s entertainment is falling asleep over the laundry. I do everything for my children, so they won’t lack anything; I work from morning till evening and live on loans. But I’m alone. I’m all alone.”