Aside from merrymaking, during Purim, observant Jews must perform four different deeds: read the Megillah; partake in a festive meal (seudat Purim); send gifts to friends and acquaintances (mishloach manot); and give charity to poor people (matanot le’evyonim).
It’s the fourth of these mitzvot that gives occasion for a broader reckoning about poverty in Israel.
A report published last month by the National Insurance Institute on “Poverty and Inequality in Income Distribution in Israel,” covering the period from July 2006 to June 2007, noted that the scope of Israeli poverty has been relatively stable in the last few years. It found that 24.7 per cent of the country’s people are poor, with 20.5 per cent of families classified as “needy,” and that the incidence of poverty among children is 35.9 per cent. That’s 420,000 poor families, with 1,674,800 people, of whom 805,000 are children.
Particularly troubling are figures showing that 54.8 per cent of non-Jewish families live in poverty. A different study, also published this year, found that a whopping 56 per cent of Jerusalem’s children are poor (a fact attributable to large haredi and Arab populations in the city). There was also an unexpected rise in poverty among the elderly: it increased from 21.5 per cent in 2006 to 23.5 per cent during the period studied. Other data shows that one-third of the country’s dwindling number of Holocaust survivors are living below the poverty line.
By comparison, in Canada, where there’s some debate about how to gauge poverty, figures show that between 4.9 per cent and 10.8 per cent of Canadians (up to 3.5 million people) are poor. According to one study, there’s been a six-fold decrease in Canadian poverty over the past 55 years.
By contrast, there is other information that shows Israel’s economy is robust. Unemployment is continually falling; inflation is low; wages, private consumption, investments and exports are rising; the GDP has been rising annually at more than five per cent for several years; Israel has the second-largest number of startup companies in the world (after the United States), and it has the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America.
Notwithstanding these signs of optimism, the poverty statistics are worrying.
Israel is moving away from social democratic economic policies and developing into more of a free market economy. The move began in earnest during Benjamin Netanyahu’ s tenure as finance minister from 2003 to 2005. Many of the economy’s successes can be credited to the correct implementation of his policies.
Economic growth has indeed created many new jobs for those who want them, the notion being that these people and their families will become less of a burden on the public purse. However, Netanyahu’s strategies also required deep slashes in government handouts, such as child and guaranteed income allowances, which in turn gave rise to further hardships among those who subsist on these allowances. As these payments were cut, many individuals and large families dropped below the poverty line.
The picture is still far from rosy. Complaints are being heard that, like too many other things, our financial system is imitating that of the United States and its laissez faire economy, in which the rich get richer while weaker elements in society are left by the wayside. Many view the situation as a social time bomb, an internal existential threat that’s capable of affecting Israel’s political situation.
But there are signs of hope, as both the private sector and the government have stepped in to help. NGOs, supported by good people from Israel and abroad, have set up a wide array of aid organizations that provide ample solutions for assorted groups of needy people and their problems. Soup kitchens have sprouted up around the country like mushrooms after a good rain. Volunteerism is flourishing.
The government, which was lambasted for allowing private organizations to replace it in dispensing social services, has started implementing a partial about-face. Among other steps, it has boosted child allowances and old-age stipends, as well as payments to Holocaust survivors. It could do so because the treasury is currently full, with surplus shekels from taxes collected from successful businesses and a larger number of employees.
Poverty is both a personal and collective affliction, and no surefire elixir has yet been found. Much must be said for Netanyahu’s policies and his setting the economy on a sounder track, but Israel needs a more progressive economic route, based on free market designs but also on social justice and Jewish ideals, such as matanot le’evyonim.
Let’s hope that many fewer poor people will be receiving charity next Purim.