The Cost of Dignity

Not even the court managed to nail down what it means for a person to live with dignity, or how the state should ensure that officially basic human right.

If you're reading these lines, presumably you can afford a newspaper. Or Internet service. You may not quite make ends meet: you may end the month in overdraft and would love to earn more, but you aren't below the poverty line.

You also have the leisure of a few seconds to study your image in the mirror each morning to make sure you look sufficiently dignified.

A homeless man in Tel Aviv.
Alex Levac

But what does it take to live in dignity in modern society? Everybody seems to know, going by the slogan of last summer's protests: "Let us live in dignity." But nobody elaborated what that means (perhaps lest their sudden solidarity be destroyed by individual interpretations of that fuzzy theme ).

In our crudeness, we identify only the extremes: profligate riches and "life without dignity" - a person foraging for supper in a garbage can, a large family living in a caravan, an invisible old lady dying in a hospital corridor. The middle is a blank. The "poverty line" and "inequality index" are statistical conveniences; but the statistics can't tell us what "living with dignity" depends on.

Ergo human dignity is a basic right that remains hazy. We know it has something to do with our standard of living, with economic policy and with societal processes, but it's also a personal thing that defies being nailed down.

Until the late 1970s Israel was a "welfare state" where discourse on living standards was confined largely to the poor (and new immigrants ) bereft of political representation. (That hasn't changed much. ) The values of state-building may have silenced some of the voices asking for help to live in dignity. Humiliation, by the way, doesn't always boil down to dollars and cents. Immigrant families remember the DDT trauma of the 1950s and cringe.

In its six-plus decades of existence, Israel has developed classes based on wealth. While comparisons over 60 years are difficult, clearly wage gaps have increased enormously, says Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Adva Center for Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel. "I remember that when I started studying in academia, in the early 1960s, we were taught that the average gap between a laborer's wage and a manager's in Israel was 2.5%," he recalls.

In 2000, executive pay was 49 times the average wage. In 2011 it was 114 times the average wage: in ten years, the wage gap increased by 132%.

Back in the early years of the state, Israelis felt there were tremendous gaps between those living in cities or on kibbutzim, and those in immigrant camps or development towns; but the wage gaps weren't as wide as today, Swirski avers - and today everything is judged by financial criteria. "The upper 1% earns disproportionate amounts with no precedent," he says. At the other end of the rainbow is extreme poverty.

Israelis by and large accepted the situation until recent years, but the festering question has risen to the surface: What does "human dignity" require? How much does it cost?

"Human rights" has been an issue of debate since the 18th century. Since then arguments have ranged from what they are to what the individual's duty to society is.

Be that as it may, on December 10, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

Makes sense. Israel enshrined the principles in its Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Yet where does the line pass between dignity and humiliation? Ostensibly crucial, in fact this question is sterile and pointless, given that it changes from one place and person to another. In one neighborhood a mother despairs at not being able to afford a sandwich for her son at school; in another the mother weeps at being forced to admit to her son that she couldn't buy him an iPhone like the rest of the kids in class have. Is the threshold of our despair existential, or relative?

The minimum is too low

The older people get, the more "dignity" seems to reflect bodily functioning, which can't be bought for money. For the younger and stronger, making a decent living for the family tends to be cardinal.

According to the last Poverty Report, in 2010 Israel had 433,000 poor families, which translates into 1,773,400 poor people of whom roughly half are minors. In 2010 the poverty line was NIS 1,930 income a month per capita (or NIS 2,413 in the case of a single person living alone ). A family of five netting less than NIS 7,240 a month is considered below the poverty line.

But the figures don't relate to dignity, nor do the criteria define utter poverty. Moreover, Yigal Ben Shalom, director-general of the National Insurance Institute from 2004 to 2008, claims that even people above the defined poverty line can't live in dignity.

"A couple earning NIS 3,681 can't live in dignity, which is why people seek help, from family or associations that provide money or products to fulfill basic needs of food, housing, clothes, education and health," says Ben-Shalom. "I estimate a single person needs NIS 4,000 a month to live with dignity at today's prices."

There are no objective criteria for how much food or medicines a person needs; moreover, the sense of dignity is relative to the environment, he says. Haredim and their big families, many of whom subsist on state assistance, may perceive life with dignity differently. Mutual assistance and donations are part of their routine, not a humiliation to them, Ben Shalom says.

Though the state could decide to lift the artificially set poverty line and help more people, the extent of aid to the poor is already considerable. The National Insurance Institute has estimated allowances to the needy in 2012 at NIS 65 billion.

Families where the breadwinners earn minimum wage or even a little more can't meet the extra payments at schools, or pay for private daycare, Swirski says. "Life with dignity isn't a definition by a welfare state. It's defined by life. That's why I oppose a definition in principle. I don't want people living at the minimum. You'd be surprised just how minimal that can be."

Walking 205 kilometers because of NIS 1,000

In 2003 Benjamin Netanyahu, then the finance minister, slashed at state subsidies for the poor. Vicky Knafo, divorced mother of three, lost NIS 1,000 a month in assistance and embarked on a protest march from her home in Mitzpeh Ramon to the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, a distance of 205 kilometers. Her trek turned into a widely covered march by single mothers in Israel. Without that NIS 1,000, she felt, she could not live in dignity.

At the same time the Supreme Court was discussing the right to human dignity after two citizens hurt by the austerity plan and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other groups sued the state.

The average loss of support was 30%, says Avishai Benish, of the Social Work and Welfare school at the Hebrew University, who co-initiated the lawsuit. Families with two children lost NIS 600 a month in help, getting NIS 2,200 instead of NIS 2,800. The suit claimed the families could no longer afford basics. "The state recognized that living with dignity was part of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty but couldn't say what that meant or explain the calculation that led it to set monthly stipends."

A three-member panel of justices headed by Dalia Dorner discussed the issue for three years. In January 2004 they ordered the state to set a standard for "living with dignity", which hasn't been done to this day. Two months later Dorner retired and the case was taken over by a panel of seven justices headed by Aharon Barak.

On the one hand, the plaintiffs had to show damage; the state had to show its decisions were reasonable, but it had no means to do so. When it comes to human rights, such as Alice Miller's struggle for the right of women to be Air Force pilots, it's easy. Social rights are muddier. So, says Benish, he felt the state needed to define the criteria for life with dignity: "If all the state can do is ensure that a man won't die of starvation, it should say so."

With Dorner's resignation, the expanded panel voided the order requiring the state to define criteria for life with dignity. The state then said all it needed was to provide a safety net, Dorner says.

No poetry in poverty

The state won. In December 2005 a majority of six justices rejected the case. The court recognized the right to human dignity but in the case before it, found no proof that the cuts had derogated from that right. But, Barak wrote, "The petitioners' grave accusation that in our country people are living with impaired dignity just because they can't achieve a tolerable standard of living has not been thoroughly investigated and the state must do so." But it didn't rule out further discussion on dignity as a right.

Another judge who wanted to leave her mark before retirement was Dorit Beinisch. She ended her last day as president of the Supreme Court, in February reading the summation of her ruling in a petition against the income support law that precluded helping anybody owning a car. Social organizations had sued on behalf of impoverished single mothers and other needy people who nonetheless had a vehicle. The court rejected the state's position that the decision to deny aid was based on a calculation of the cost of vehicle maintenance, which it claimed was about the same as the amount of aid per month; therefore, the state concluded, the aid was not deserved.

"The right to minimal human subsistence with dignity is the heart and core of human dignity. Living on the verge of starvation, without shelter, constantly wondering where help will come from, is not living in dignity. There is no poetry in poverty and want. Without minimal material conditions, a person cannot create, aspire, choose and exercise his freedoms," the court ruled.

Not all those receiving state aid are helpless people who can't work. People who work, families with two breadwinners, can also live in terrible poverty, it turns out. The battle over working conditions of subcontract workers is precisely because they are often paid so little that they cannot live in dignity.

In September 2010, Dotan Persitz of Tel Aviv University published a paper discussing issues of "fair wages" and dignity in Israel. His work was based on American experience, mainly the awakening of social movements for fair wages starting in the late 19th century. After World War II, claims Persitz, the concept of "fair wage" disappeared from the public discourse for decades, only reappearing in the mid-1990s.

Today "fair wage" is usually defined as a pay level enabling the worker to sustain his family with minimal economic security and dignity. Which means what?

Left undefined, everybody interprets it as they see fit, says Persitz. The UN's International Labor Organization for instance defines fair wage as sufficing for basic needs of an average family in a given economy, he says. But in practice, it differs from family to family.

Despite various advances in social affairs, in 2006 the American minimum wage (in real terms - adjusted for inflation ) fell to its lowest point in 50 years because the real poverty line had not been moved since first calculated in the mid-1960s. And here?

"In Israel an average worker in a low-paid full-time job can't support a family in minimal economic security and dignity," claims Persitz.

Israel's poverty line is based on the distribution of income in the economy. From 2001 to 2005 there were attempts to calculate an utter-poverty index for Israel. Values based on that index found that a family of four needs NIS 7,500 a month, which was 33% above the official poverty line that year and double the minimum wage. That doesn't mean the utter-poverty model reflects reality more accurately than the usual indexes Israel uses, but it does show how fluid the definitions are when in comes to theory.

Meanwhile the cost of living in Israel keeps rising, and so does the minimum needed to live like a human being. "The standard of living rose in the last decade and so did income levels, but not enough to match the increase in costs," says Ben Shalom. "The worst hit is the middle class. But among the poor, actually, not much has changed."