Israeli Poverty Statistics Paint a Misleading Picture

Millions of people are living at a distance of less than an hour's journey from us, crammed into anonymous enclaves of poverty and weakness, yet their desires don't need to be taken into account.

Dror Etkes
Dror Etkes
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Palestinian workers from Hebron at Tarqumiya Checkpoint.
Palestinian workers from Hebron at Tarqumiya Checkpoint.Credit: Emil Salman
Dror Etkes
Dror Etkes

In a report recently published by UNICEF, Israel was unflatteringly ranked fourth in the developed world in terms of the proportion of children who are poor – about 35 percent. According to this report, only Spain, Latvia and Greece have higher rates of child poverty.

The child poverty figures published by Israel’s National Insurance Institute in late 2013 (which relate to 2012) reveal a similar picture: 39 percent of Israeli children were poor before taking NII transfer payments into account, and 33.7 percent of them remained poor even after these payments.

In this context, it has become customary in recent years to talk about three different countries that exist in Israel simultaneously: the “workers’ state,” the “ultra-Orthodox state” and the “Arab state.” This, of course, begs mention of the statement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012: “Excluding the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, our situation is excellent.”

The main problem with these statistics, even if you don’t “exclude” the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox from the overall picture, is that a fourth “state” is missing from this description of the local economic reality: that of Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who are neither Israeli citizens nor Israeli residents (in contrast to most East Jerusalem Palestinians, who therefore are included in the NII’s poverty statistics). Some 4.3 million people live in this “state.” They aren’t included in any statistics that describe the socioeconomic situation in Israel, even though Israel has ruled over them and their economy absolutely for about five decades now.

It’s clear that if child poverty statistics in Israel also included those millions of Palestinians – who are paid their wages in Israeli shekels and buy their food in shekels – then based on the situation of the total population living in territory controlled by Israel, the country wouldn’t even make it to the bottom rung of the ladder of developed countries. Almost certainly, it would rank somewhere in the middle of the underdeveloped countries.

Here, for example, are a few comparative statistics: Per capita gross domestic product comes to $1,924 in the West Bank and $876 in Gaza. In Israel, per capita GDP is over $36,000. Israel’s official unemployment rate is 6.9 percent (though it’s clear the actual unemployment rate is higher). In the Palestinian Authority, the official unemployment rate is 27.5 percent, and that figure, too, is far from reflecting reality.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the average salaried employee in Israel grossed about 9,000 shekels a month in 2013 (about $2,250 at current exchange rates). The average monthly income of salaried employees in the PA is currently 2,260 shekels. And this latter figure includes Palestinians working in Israeli settlements, who earn twice as much as other salaried employees in the West Bank and three times as much as employees in Gaza.

This means that a teacher in the Palestinian Authority earns 1,400 shekels per month, much less than the already low starting salary of a teacher in Israel. And a PA policeman earns 1,500 shekels a month, much less than the already low starting salary of an Israeli policeman.

Statistics are supposed to give a broad, comprehensive picture of reality, but they can also be used as a tool to hide the facts and create a false impression. One example of this can be found in the list of most common baby names that the statistics bureau publishes every year. In a press release this year, the most common name of all – Mohammed – was omitted from the list. Thus in this case too, statistics served as a tool for manipulating consciousness instead of revealing the facts as they really are.

Israel has accustomed itself – and as the UNICEF data shows, apparently the rest of the world as well – to thinking of the local reality in terms straight out of a fantasy novel. Only thus could a reality continue to exist for almost 50 years in which millions of people are living at a distance of less than an hour’s journey from us, crammed into anonymous enclaves of poverty and weakness, yet whose desires don’t need to be taken into account.

There are some governments that bar publication of all statistical data to avoid exposing the paucity of their achievements to critical eyes. Other governments allow publication of statistical data because they understand that even if the picture they show isn’t always flattering, it’s necessary in order to hold a serious debate based on facts rather than wishful thinking.

And then there are governments, like the State of Israel’s, that choose a unique method of coping with this problem: Under the guise of an open, public debate, they make sure that on “sensitive” issues, the statistical data reveals only the tip of the iceberg while concealing the iceberg itself. And they thereby nurture the dangerous illusion of transparency.

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