Israel Mulls Reducing Poverty by Redefining 'Poor'

Debate over defining poverty has major implications for funding recommendations.

The government could end up allotting less money to fight poverty if a less inclusive measure is adopted that would automatically reduce the number of Israelis living under the poverty line.

“Some people want to reduce the number of poor people by moving to a different measurement,” Daniel Gottlieb, a member of the Social Affairs Ministry committee on poverty, reportedly said at a conference of the Forum for Social Policy Research in Israel last week.

“They tell us, ‘Change your scales and the number of poor people can go down without spending a shekel,’” participants at the annual conference, held at Tel Aviv University, quoted Gottlieb as saying. “It’s very difficult in the War on Poverty Committee.”

Gottlieb is also the deputy director for research and planning in the National Insurance Institute.

The arguments over how to define poverty are “distracting the committee from the main subject: what actions the government must take to limit the number of people living in poverty and the depth of poverty,” said Rabbi Idit Lev, the director of the social justice department of Rabbis for Human Rights.

The debate also has major implications for funding recommendations, since the government could use statistics indicating a relatively low number of poor people to justify allotting less money to resolve the problem. The subcommittee responsible for making the funding recommendations, whose deliberations are being kept private, is expected to release an interim report on its findings in April.

There were 1.75 million Israelis, including 817,200 children, living under the poverty line in 2012, according to an NII report released in December, which found a slight improvement between 2011 and 2012. However, the NII cautioned against comparing the 2012 figures with those of previous years due to changes in the Central Bureau of Statistics database.

The poverty line was set at 2,256 shekels ($643) per person per month in 2012.

Gottlieb said the insurance institute is using the same poverty measures as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while U.S. consulting firm McKinsey uses a measure that excludes some of the Israelis currently considered poor. McKinsey is providing its data to Israel for free.

At one point during a debate of the poverty committee, its chairman — Eli Alaluf, director of the Rashi Foundation, a charity that helps the underprivileged in Israel — questioned the National Insurance Institute poverty report, saying: “Are there really 1.8 million poor people?”

“Dealing with numbers distracts us from the true stories of poverty,” said Alaluf. “We can’t deal with the problem of poverty through statistics.”

Gottlieb defended the method used by the NII and the OECD, saying, “It’s very cheap to fight poverty by denying the statistics.”

“We sit here every time, and the bomb comes at the end,” Gottlieb said at the committee meeting. “If the committee chairman doesn’t believe the poverty statistics, that’s too much. You can argue with the OECD, but that’s the best body in research, and not only about poverty. The work they do is just as good as McKinsey’s. Their work is considered expert not only in Israel, but in every self-respecting country.”

Lev said the debate “calls into question the way decisions are being made in the committee,” but the poverty committee issued a statement defending its right to examine the premises underlying the poverty problem.

“In the deliberations of the committee, all of whose members serve as volunteers, basic conventions are being scrutinized, among them accepted definitions of poverty,” the statement said. “The committee promotes free debate among various experts, all of whom are invited to speak their mind.”

Olivier Fitoussi