Poverty 2002

The fragile security net that the state supposedly provides for Israel's poverty stricken is about to collapse. The national unity government is demonstrating unjust distribution, on the one hand, and distorted priorities, on the other.

Two months ago, Yitzhak M., who lives in a development town in northern Israel, came home earlier than usual. When his wife Hani arrived home from the kindergarten where she works as a teacher's aide, he told her that he had been fired from his factory job. Since then, Yitzhak, a graduate of a technical high school, has been looking for work and trying not to succumb to depression.

The refrigerator in the M. family is not empty and their two children - a 7-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl - are dressed nicely. There is a computer and the boy's well-covered textbooks in the children's room.

As part of a community project initiated and determinedly run by a group of social workers (with funding from a voluntary organization and meager participation by the government welfare bureau), the couple have received personal coaching: They have learned to manage the family budget, make full use of commodities, forward their children's study and reading habits, and accompany them to after-school activities at the community center. But since Yitzhak lost his job, this fine balance has been undermined.

If the Economic Arrangements Bill comes to abolish supplementary income payments for owners of old cars, Yitzhak and Hani will have to sell their 1990-model Subaru 1300 and Yitzhak will be unable to expand his range of employment. If implementation of legislation that was passed last year and provides for the loaning of textbooks to needy pupils is postponed until 2005, the M. family will have a hard time purchasing school books for next year. Any irregular expense - a dental treatment, the annual class trip, a wedding or some other family celebrations - not only threatens to drag them below the poverty line, but also down to the level of humiliation.

This week, the National Insurance Institute was supposed to have published its report on poverty for last year, but the publication was postponed for some unknown reason. When the report is finally released, there will again be the usual media ritual showing children eating bread and jam and elderly people in soup kitchens, together with a learned debate on the question of whether all of those on the poverty list are really poor or are simply low earners relative to the rising average wage.

Both of these approaches ignore what welfare experts have known for quite some time: Poverty is not only measured in terms of income or what is on the plate. A report on poverty published by the Welfare Ministry in Britain in 1999 listed 14 different measures of poverty, including access to education, physical and mental health, exposure to crime, residential crowding, family violence and so on.

The M. family purchased its apartment from the Amidar public housing company two years ago, but not under the terms of the Public Housing Law (def?erred from 1998). Instead, they purchased the home under the government's less favorable conditions. If Yitzhak does not find work, he and Hani will not be able to meet their monthly housing payments.

The erosion of the education system, primarily reflected in the budget proposal exclusively prepared by the Finance Ministry (and not the Education Ministry), together with the galloping privatization that bolsters the strong and leaves the weak behind, will hurt the M. family - and more so than in the past.

And because the promise of improved vocational training under the Wisconsin Plan has remained only on paper, Yitzhak will not be able to switch professions. His children, who will become accustomed to having an unemployed and frustrated father, are liable themselves to turn away from pursuing an education and thus to become candidates for a second-generation of unemployed. According to professional literature, this second-generation population becomes stuck in a culture of poverty and requires twice as much investment to extricate itself.

The fragile security net that the state supposedly provides for the M. family is, therefore, about to collapse. The national unity government is demonstrating, more so than its predecessors, the pincer movement that is creating poverty in Israel - unjust distribution, on the one hand, and distorted priorities, on the other.

The Jewish settlements in the territories and the neglect of civil society represent the meeting place for these two trends. (This year, for example, was a record year for construction of bypass roads. This practice will ostensibly slow down in 2002, but only according to the budget earmarked for the Public Works Department; most of the funds for these roads are hidden in the defense budget.)

The hearts of the settlement leaders, who speak in the name of sacred values, are hardened when it comes to the urgent problems of Israeli society. And the Left has tempered its arguments against continuing to hold on to the territories out of fear that a civil war might erupt over the dismantling of settlements. Both groups are blind to the anger and enmity that will turn the young children of Hani and Yitzhak into hostile and alienated citizens a few years from now.