Start-up Nation’s Underbelly: Israel’s Child Poverty Rate Tops OECD Countries

Children greatly affected, especially in holy city of Jerusalem

Israel’s childhood poverty rate of 10.2 percent is the highest among the 35 member countries in The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a report by Israel’s National Insurance Institute. While the report showed a rise in the minimum wage and child-care allowances, it also indicated that many Israeli families of three or more children live below the poverty line, even if both parents work full-time jobs at the minimum wage.

“Our demography is totally different from that of other OECD countries. We have a population with low human capital and large households,” Haim Bleikh, a researcher at the Taub Center, told The Media Line.

He said the low human capital is reflected in the large portion of unemployed workers and workers with low wages, while households with large families, especially ultra-Orthodox—or Haredi—families, occupied the bottom sector of income distribution in Israel.

Eitan Regev, a Senior Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line that the lowest educational levels and highest poverty rates are found among Haredi and Arab communities.

One area where childhood poverty could be seen first-hand was in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. While people were busy filling grocery bags with fruits and vegetables, a group of young volunteers from the Love organization, handed out boxes of food to those in need.

“It’s called Love—all is one, and all we need is love,” Yaniv Elimelech, one of leaders of the organization, told The Media Line.

Love members gather in the Shuk (or “market”) every Tuesday evening, with some volunteers coming from Tel Aviv where they also work for Sahi, Love’s umbrella organization.

“We go to all the shops where owners give us vegetables, meat and fish, and we give the food to families who don’t have any,” Elimelech conveyed. He explained that usually mothers with a large number of children take the food being offered.

The volunteers, he continued, also visit surrounding neighborhoods to seek out impoverished families. Part of the problem is that many Israeli families do not ask for help out of a sense of shame.

Itamar Cohen, a soldier, volunteers with Love when off-duty. He said he understands the problems that youth from poor backgrounds face.

“I came from a wealthy neighborhood and the kids around me had almost zero chances of getting into trouble. But kids from immigrant families have a harder time. The parents of many younger olim [immigrants to Israel] often don’t speak Hebrew,” said Cohen.

Yuval Halabia, Chairman of Israel’s National Student and Youth Council, told The Media Line that the negative perception of these youth is a big problem.

“Those of the generation before say we are a bad generation; that we don’t have the ability to do anything for ourselves, and that we always drink and smoke,” said Halabia. “Then give us the skills to make a change and become leaders,” he stressed.

In addition to providing food for families in need, Cohen said he also works to help children become autonomous and good role models for others. “We also make them leaders. Our biggest success is when they become self-dependent and no longer need our help.”

Yuval Saar-Heinan, a student at Ben-Gurion University who has worked with Israel’s National Council for the Child, believes that the process of “neo-liberalization” or “laissez-faire economics” is what prompted the privatization of some government services, with the aim of reducing public expenditures.

“This means that more families are dependent on private organizations, which cannot meet the needs of children,” said Saar-Heinan.

Besides private groups, Israeli local authorities are primarily responsible for providing welfare services. Although there is no substitute for Israel’s current welfare allocation system, some analysts argue that the existing “matching” method—whereby the national government contributes three times the amount of funds allocated by a given locality to social welfare—should be abolished or, at the very least, modified, as this provides already wealthy communities with a disproportionate amount of the pie.

(David Lee is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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