Waiting for a Prime Minister to Embrace an Anti-poverty Program

The head of an umbrella group for giving food to the poor hopes the new reformist finance minister can make Benjamin Netanyahu more generous.

Olivier Fitoussi

These haven’t been easy days for Latet, an umbrella organization of nonprofit groups that provide food for 60,000 people.

Plenty of Israelis need help, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise election victory has left a bitter taste in the mouths of left-of-center voters. Some are even blaming the poor for helping deliver Netanyahu another term and vowing revenge by stopping contributions to Latet. “Lo Latet” (“Don’t Give”) is the Facebook page promoting the campaign.

So Latet in vulnerable. Some 45% of the donations it needs to support its 70-million-shekel ($18 million) budget comes from individuals, with another 30% from philanthropic organizations and 25% from businesses. Latet CEO Eran Weintrob tells TheMarker how he’s coping and what to expect from the new government.

Have you noticed a drop in donations? Have people canceled commitments?

So far, I don’t know of any cancellations, but we’ll only know for sure after Passover. In any case, people who’ve declared that they’ll no longer donate are people who haven’t been donating anyway.

Are you concerned that donations will diminish?

That’s always a concern.

Can you understand people who are angry?

No, I can’t relate to that in any way, and I’m sure most of the public isn’t affected either. It’s a mistake to link the need to help weaker segments of society to politics. Each of us should be helping others, even when the others think and look different, whether left or right, Jew or Arab, a different skin color. The only criteria are if a person needs help and you care. All the rest doesn’t matter.

Especially now, after such a stormy election campaign filled with lies that threatened to sunder Israeli society, we have an opportunity to bring people together. People of all sorts voted for Likud or Zionist Union.

Who said poor people voted for Netanyahu, and what does it matter what their political opinions are? Punishing someone whose politics differ from yours is inhumane, I think. Social action isn’t political. We actually conducted a survey among poor people, asking about their political opinions.

What were the results?

[Zionist Union’s Isaac] Herzog won, but that was just one more survey published before the election; it could be that these people changed their minds.

Is it hard to raise donations from Israeli companies?

The culture of donations is developing in Israel. We still lag behind the U.S. by a few years, but overall the business sector is mobilized, even if one could expect more. I believe that gradually more companies will realize that it’s not just competition for the consumer’s wallet, it’s what they do for the community.

How do you reach families that need a donation?

Ultimately, every needy person reaches a social worker who tells him the state can’t provide him with what he needs such as food. So he gives him a note with the name of an aid group. We collect food from the public and food retailers and deliver it to those groups.

The food collected from the retailers is called “salvaged food” because these products can’t be marketed anymore but haven’t expired. We have a fleet of trucks and three logistic centers with which we deliver the food to aid groups. We’re talking about food worth 50 million shekels a year.

During the election campaign, poverty wasn’t a big enough topic.

Unjustifiably so. We met with all the party heads, who agreed to meet us to tell us what their commitment to tackling poverty was and what budgets would be allocated. We’re very concerned ... that despite the enormity of the problem, there’s no government plan to reduce poverty.

Historic step needed

Whom did you meet with?

We met with Isaac Herzog and Manuel Trajtenberg from Zionist Union, Moshe Kahlon and Eli Alalouf from Kulanu, Orli Levi-Abekasis from Yisrael Beiteinu, Meir Cohen from Yesh Atid and Zehava Galon from Meretz.

What about the others?

We also approached [Habayit Hayehudi’s] Naftali Bennett, Likud and Shas, but they wouldn’t meet with us. We chased them quite a bit. Apparently they had different priorities. We set up a meeting with the Joint List [of Arab parties], but that didn’t happen due to a scheduling conflict.

Were you surprised?

When Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Shas didn’t want to meet with us, I think that illustrated their take on the issue. Likud didn’t even publish a platform, which is wrong from a democratic perspective, but the public made its choice and our expectations of any government won’t change.

I’m not arguing that Likud isn’t a socially conscious party, but I have serious misgivings about the previous government. Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009, but he’s not the only one. Before him no prime ministers embraced a program to reduce poverty.

Who would you prefer to see as social affairs minister?

Whoever takes the historic step of launching a plan to reduce poverty.

Who was the best social affairs minister in recent years?

We’ve worked with Herzog, Kahlon and Cohen, and unfortunately none of them made significant changes. I can say they all tried.

Kahlon attacked nonprofit groups, saying that their managers earned salaries at the expense of the needy.

My gross salary is 26,000 shekels a month, with the details shown on our website. Our managerial and general expenses at Latet come to 6% to 7% of our budget, while according to the accountant general overhead expenses are allowed to reach 13%.

The essence of Latet is giving, and the organization is based on volunteers. We have 13,000 volunteers, 250 per salaried worker. The organization is based on these volunteers and on leveraging donated funds to obtain food and assistance. Transparency is in our blood — all our financial reports are on our website and on the website of the registry of nonprofit organizations.

We held intensive talks with Kahlon, who eventually recognized the problem of basic nutritional needs. In July 2012, he and Netanyahu committed to budget 100 million shekels for a program designed to guarantee nutritional needs. He now has an opportunity to implement his commitment.

What are your demands regarding policies?

We have a clear agenda. For years we’ve been demanding that the government spearhead a plan to reduce poverty, a plan with measurable goals. In 2007 we filed a petition at the High Court to obligate the state to take responsibility for guaranteeing basic nutritional needs. The state undertook to take action. Every year we publish an alternative poverty report in order to influence the debate.

Laggard in the OECD

Maybe politicians feel they have more important things to deal with?

During the election campaign the public was asked what their most urgent problem was, and most people talked about poverty and social issues. According to the National Insurance Institute, one-fifth of Israeli families live in poverty and distress, but actually many more people do. There’s a sense that in the OECD we’re competing for last place in terms of poverty, and there are still no well-defined policies in this area.

Why not?

Apparently the poor don’t interest anyone. They have no political clout. There is no one to represent them in the Knesset — maybe it’s convenient for some people this way. I have no other explanation; things are chaotic.

When children don’t get the food they need or the help they need at school, their self-confidence decreases and their chances of reaching higher education are slim. Maybe this is the reason recent NII reports show increasing numbers of young poor heads of families. This is the result of policies that produce generations of poor people. Four governments have changed since we petitioned the High Court and none took responsibility.

Kahlon will have a great impact as finance minister. What did he promise you in your meeting?

We were happy they committed to deal with poverty as a cornerstone of a coalition government. Alalouf headed a committee for combating poverty, and the conclusions should serve as the new government’s blueprint.

The solutions are already on the table. The government should commit to allotting a substantial budget of 5 billion to 7 billion shekels to implement the Alalouf Committee’s recommendations. It should ensure nutritional needs and set goals for reducing poverty, just as it sets goals for growth and deficit reduction.

Netanyahu said the greatest challenge is Iran — life itself.

Life itself also means ensuring that your child has something to eat at school. Life itself means ensuring that an old person doesn’t live on handouts and scraps he finds in the garbage. I know very few people who don’t want to be independent and obtain their food on their own. This topic should be a high national priority. If it means cutting elsewhere, I think it’s worthwhile.

The latest report indicated a slight reduction in poverty rates.

True, but we don’t feel it on the ground. Even the NII had reservations about some of the data, saying they don’t reflect the full impact of the cuts in child allowances. I have no doubt that the 2014 report will show continued growth in poverty rates. I think Israel doesn’t want to be a third-world country, but we’re headed that way. Even with a slight dip, poverty rates in Israel are twice the average in OECD countries.

According to your report, 1% of those receiving aid from food agencies have master’s degrees and even more have bachelor degrees.

These are the new poor, coming from the middle class. This is one more indication that we’re becoming a weak society. A strong society has a strong middle class, but here we have a small middle class with a polarization toward rich and poor extremes.

According to the NII, 78% of poor people of working age actually work — this covers poor households in which at least one adult works, even part-time. When one earns minimum wage with no enforcement of labor laws, that’s what you get.

Most people I’ve met became poor following illness, a change in family status, a sudden death, divorce, a wrong financial decision such as a failed small business, or even mortgage payments that became overwhelming. Ultimately, people want to extricate themselves from such a situation and live independently. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys waiting in line for a food package.