Is Israel Starving Its Poor?

The state must give more aid to people who are incapable of working but not considered disabled.

The annual report of Israel’s National Insurance Institute, which was issued Tuesday, contains a social time bomb. According to the data collected by the agency, which is the Israeli equivalent of the Social Security Administration in the United States, the state has turned its back on its neediest citizens. Welfare benefits paid out to poor families cover between 40% and 114% of the minimum required for a dignified existence, the report says.

At the top end of that range, with relatively generous allowances thanks to sharp rises in old-age benefits in recent years, are the elderly. The sharp increase in recent years in old-age benefits has saved many of them from the ravages of poverty. They, at least, can keep their heads above water.

That’s not the case for poor families consisting of working-age adults with dependent children. Using three different methods to determine the minimum required for a dignified existence, the NII found that they faced hunger. Welfare benefits cover just 40% to 60% of their needs. The state's outreached hand does not extend far enough to release these families from the cycle of poverty.

At first glance the report is shocking, seemingly depicting Israel as a neoliberal state that shows no mercy to its weakest members. But on closer inspection the picture becomes much more complex. First, it should be emphasized that the definition of “dignified existence” is very much open to debate. As a result, it is far from certain that the agency has in fact found the elusive line demarcating the threshold of dignified existence.

Even if we assume that its definition is accurate, the NII’s calculations are still far from precisely representing state aid to its citizens. They only incompletely account for nonmonetary assistance. They include discounts on water, electricity and municipal tax (arnona) payments extended to needy families, for example, but not the much more valuable discounts on health services and education.

In Israel’s poorest communities (the three lowest economic clusters), kindergarten is free, as are after-school programs for children between the ages of 3 and 8. Would you like to calculate the value of this aid for needy families?

Moreover, the NII study included only child and old-age allowances and income support payments. It did not include the most important payment of all, disability payments, whose purpose is to help people who are incapable of working.

The agency decided to ignore people who receive disability allowances due to the complexity of the calculations require. In doing so, it pointed the way to a deeper understanding of the flaws in the NII report. It includes only those families - some of them with five or more children - whose sole source of reported income is NII welfare payments. Since people with disabilities are excluded, the question becomes “Who are these families with five children and no breadwinner?”

They are the soft underbelly of Israel's social welfare system. A minority of them are ultra-Orthodox families (yeshiva students are ineligible for NII income support). There are Arab families in which neither parent works, as well as other families that fell out of the workforce. These are hardship cases, where the heads of the families don't suffer from any physical disability but don’t work and are incapable of helping themselves.

Helping such people is particularly problematic for the state, which finds it hard to help those who don’t help themselves, and has not quite decided how much it's willing to do. While it doesn't want to allow people who don't work to slide into starvation, especially not their children, neither does it want to reward those who choose not to work with generous welfare benefits.

The solution is to revive the so-called Wisconsin Plan, a welfare-to-work program that for a few years represented the state's most substantial assistance to this population. Under the plan, every welfare recipient in participating communities was required to report to special centers for vocational testing and counseling. It was the first and only time that the state looked its hardship cases directly in the eyes and tried to find out what kept these individuals from helping themselves, and whether they could be helped to overcome those obstacles. And since this is a particularly complex, weak and problematic population, there was no way to help it except through coercion and on an individual basis.

Through individualized care, which is neither easy nor particularly pleasant, The Wisconsin Plan succeeded in introducing a relatively high percentage of this population into the workforce while also determining those individuals who should be eligible for disability payments. Nevertheless, many of these individuals remained unemployed without being judged eligible for disability benefits.

It is these individuals that the state must recognize as incapable of helping themselves. It is these people whose state benefits must be improved.

Olivier Fitoussi