The doorbell heralded a National Insurance Institute surveyor. He sat down in the living room, pulled out the forms and began asking questions: “How many days have you worked in the past three months?”
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“I work full-time, every day, every month,” the master of the house replied. “Good, then I’ll write you down as a wage earner,” said the interviewer.
“Wait a moment,” the householder asked, “what if I’d said I only work two weeks a month?” “Then you’d also be an earner,” the interviewer replied.
“And what about one week?” “Then, too,” the surveyor said. “You have to understand, it’s enough for you to have worked a single day in the last three months for you to be considered an earner.”
“One single day?! Incredible.”
You’d better believe it. According to the NII’s latest poverty report, 25.9 percent of families with one earner are below the poverty line, and 5.6 percent of families with two earners are buried under that line. That’s frightening. It’s terrible. It means work doesn’t save you from poverty.
But if the NII stopped deceiving us, decided that an “earner” is someone who works full time and amended its data accordingly, the number of families defined as “working poor” would fall sharply. For instance, the proportion of families with two full-time earners that are nevertheless under the poverty line is just 0.9 percent. In other words, work does indeed save you from poverty.
There’s another problem with the poverty report. Based on its findings, 53 percent of Arab families and 49 percent of ultra-Orthodox families are below the poverty line. This sounds illogical and disconnected from reality. I visit the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak and Arab towns fairly often. In these places, you don’t see poverty that deep. You don’t see it in the streets, the houses, the stores or the markets.
So let’s put our hands on our hearts and ask, “Is there any chance of the NII’s surveyor receiving truthful answers in these communities?” Would he even dare to enter East Jerusalem or the capital’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood? After all, the ultra-Orthodox would see him as part of the “foreign government” which it’s a mitzvah to deceive. They, like the Arabs and the Bedouin, wouldn’t dream for a second of telling him the truth about their income, some of which is earned under the table.
This doesn’t mean there’s no false reporting in other communities. But the fact is that the NII’s former director general, Esther Dominissini, said in a media interview, “Among the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, statistical under-reporting is substantial; poverty among them is much lower than what is published.”
She added that if one uses household expenditure surveys instead of income surveys, poverty rates drop by about 40 percent; therefore, “the core of poverty in Israel comprises 12 percent of households, no more.” That’s in contrast to the official statistic, which puts the poverty rate at 19.1 percent.
And one more problem: The published poverty statistics relate only to disposable income in shekels. They don’t take into account the in-kind income poor families receive, like subsidized public housing, municipal tax discounts, subsidized electricity, discounts on public transportation and subsidized day care and after-school programs. This also distorts the data and requires correction.
Nevertheless, let there be no mistake: Even if we fixed the data, poverty and social gaps in Israel would still be too high. The problem is that the government doesn’t really care.
Just this week, during the annual budget talks, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Habayit Hayehudi got their pound of flesh in the form of an extra two million shekels ($520,000) that will go to yeshivas, memorializing rabbis, the settlements, Hebron and bullet-proof buses in the territories. That’s the very money that should have gone to education in the Arab community, professional training, subsidized day care and public transportation in order to make it easier for people to get jobs, as well as to expanding the negative income tax and raising the minimum wage.
But here, the money goes instead to the illegal outpost of Amona, the settlements and the ultra-Orthodox. So is it any wonder that poverty rates aren’t falling?