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Managing a Home Below the Poverty Line

The recent poverty 'report' was intended to help the Left in the election campaign. In 2013 there was a significant decrease in the number of poor. The worrisome statistics in the report mainly reflect the situation in the Arab and Haredi sectors.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

A poverty report on Israel was published recently, and as usual, social welfare organizations voiced their protests – but this time, even louder than usual and with more blatant support from the mainstream media, apparently, in hopes of helping the leftist parties win the elections.
Since this is a very important issue which various parties use to further their own ends, its implications should be studied and in conclusion, the Torah's guidance on the proper way to deal with poverty should be laid out.

Data on the Number of People Living below the Poverty Line

According to the data of Bituach Leumi (National Insurance Institute), in 2013 in the State of Israel there were approximately 1.65 million citizens below the poverty line, which is roughly 18.6% of Israel's citizens. If only children (up to the age of eighteen) are counted, the number comes to approximately 757 000, or a third of all children in the country.

The Improvement in the Employment Rate and Wages

The recent report actually showed a significant improvement, since the number of poor people this year decreased by about 100,000. The reasons for this were an increase in the employment rate, and an increase in the wages of lower-level employees. This improvement reflects an extremely positive development in Israel’s economy, because this year child benefits were cut, and in spite of this, the number of poor declined. In other words, the increase in the number of people employed and the increase in their wages was so significant, that despite the reduction in benefits, the number of poor decreased.
When measuring the unemployment rate in Israel, we are in great shape compared to the majority of developed countries who underwent a deep economic crisis in recent years.

In Israel, the unemployment rate stands at 5.6%. In contrast, in European Union countries, the average unemployment rate is about 10%, and in the United States, which has staged a remarkable recovery from the crisis, the unemployment rate has declined to approximately 5.9%.
In any case, in terms of unemployment our situation is excellent. Incidentally, this fact does not prevent the leftists from continuing to believe that Israel's control of Judea and Samaria causes damage to the economy.

Two Worrisome Statistics

Nevertheless, there were two disturbing statistics in the report. The first is the increase in the number of families in which both parents work at least part-time, but in spite of this, are still below the poverty line. This is about 5% of all families.

The second worrying statistic is that the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than most of the developed countries. In effect, among the OECD countries, the State of Israel nearly leads in the income gap between rich and poor.

Israel's Unique Challenges

Further observation reveals that these figures do not reflect the true economic situation, because, unlike other OECD countries, the State of Israel includes two very large populations, Arab and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) whose attitude towards work is different than in other developed countries, and the majority of the poor belong to these two groups. It must also be noted that their income and tax reports are inadequate, so that the data reported does not really reflect the true situation.
In both of these populations, the employment rate is considerably low – in the Arab sector because women do not work, and in the Haredi sector because many men do not work. I do not include Torah scholars and those who learn for the sake of teaching children, adolescents and young men in the unemployment rate, both because ultimately they work as educators, yeshiva teachers and rabbis, and because they are not the cause of poverty – on the contrary, thanks to them, all of the citizens are blessed and enriched.

Another problem with both of these populations is that most of the employees work in very simple jobs whose income is low. This is due to a lack of a high school and academic education.
In practice, these two populations comprise almost one-third of Israel's citizens. No other country in the world has to grapple with such a given. Judging by this, the State of Israel’s economic situation is almost a miracle.

What is the Poverty Line?

The poverty line is half of the average income per capita. In other words, the income of all the citizens of Israel is divided by the number of people, resulting in per capita income. The poverty line is half of the average income per capita.

That is to say, as the average income level rises, so does the poverty line. Therefore, in order to lessen the number of people below the poverty line, wage gaps must be reduced.
Last year, the average income per capita was 4,783 shekels a month; consequently, the poverty line was 2,392 shekels per month. For example, the poverty line for a family of five – a father, mother and three children was below 11, 960 shekels a month.

Flaws in Defining the Poverty Line

It should be noted that the poverty line is an arbitrary and imprecise model. Indeed, poverty is relative; however, perhaps the top percentile and maybe even the top 10% should be taken out of the computation of the average, because such people are few and far between, and their incomes are above and beyond the requirements for an extremely high standard of living. If this were done, the poverty line would decrease significantly in percentages.

In addition, the division by number of persons does not accurately reflect the status of the family, because the cost per child in a family with ten children is less than that of a family with two children. The larger the family is, the cheaper everything gets, including housing costs, heating, food, cooking, washing, cleaning, etc.
Incidentally, from my own experience I can attest that for many years my family lived under the official poverty line and we got along quite nicely – even from a financial point of view, considering that by the above calculations, a family of fifteen people needs an income of 35,880 shekels a month (at today's prices) to be above the poverty line. I think we got by on just about half of the poverty line, and in addition, we managed to save money for our children, and thus are able to help them complete their studies for a master's degree (till now, three daughters have already completed a master's degree, two of them are in the process of obtaining a doctorate, and another is beginning her master's degree).

A Possible Explanation for the Increase in the Number of Poor among Working Parents

One reason for the increase in the number of poor people from families in which both parents work (at least part-time) may be due to the higher average number of children per family among the religious, traditional and secular sectors respectively. For example, parents with two children and a low-income can easily be above the poverty line, but with three children it is difficult, let alone four.

Similarly, among religious families who have several children, although many of the parents earn relatively high wages, with seven children, they will be below the poverty line.
Here I must add that the religious community’s main problem stems from extremely high education costs. These expenses must be at least cut in half, and this can be done without harming Torah education and elementary mathematics and English. However, this is not the place to expand upon this painful problem.

"Charity Organizations"

After discussing the data themselves, it's time to deal with the highly vocal charity organizations, who, year after year, regardless of the objective data, hurl the same accusations at the state, government, and society. Apparently, some of what they say stems from good intentions; however, it is also important to know that there are two weighty interests underlying their words.

First, they rely on contributions. The more they intensify the problem of poverty, the easier it is for them to convince donors to continue contributing to them. It would be interesting to reveal the salaries of all the executives and public relations managers of these charity organizations.
Secondly, most of them tend to lean the left politically, and are interested in diverting public discussion from issues of Israel’s existential threats in the fields of security, immigration and settlement to social issues and wage gaps, in order to attack the right-wing governments and settlement policy – as if expelling settlers from Judea and Samaria will solve the problem of the poor.

Moreover, as disciples of the ideological foundations of communism and socialism, they believe that in principle, property and money belong to everyone equally. And although the communist idea went bankrupt financially, they still believe in its moral status, and therefore, in their way of thinking, society must fully provide for the welfare of all citizens, because everyone has the right to live in dignity and well-being, no matter how they became poor.

The Torah’s Instruction

In contrast, according to Torah instruction, the individual – including the poor person, is responsible for his own situation, and only after one makes every possible effort to earn a living but is no longer able to, is it a mitzvah to help him, as it is written: "You must make every effort to help him." And certainly, we are obligated to help those who are unable to work due to illness or old age.
The Torah method is also more effective, because the main driving force that will ultimately help the poor the most is competition. This is also the highest level of the mitzvah of charity – to help the poor stand on his own feet, and not resort to donations and benefits. In contrast, the leftist methods never work, because they reinforce poverty and quell the poor person’s motivation to take responsibility and move forward on his own.

Alternative Poverty Reports

Given that the accurate and verified data on poverty in Israel is not harsh enough, left-wing activists feel the need to bolster them in order to bring about the necessary revolution. Thus, we are "enlightened" by the charity organizations and various media personalities about an alternative poverty report according to which the actual data is irrelevant – the main thing is what the poor feel, or more precisely, how the media wants us to think they feel.

They ask them: "Are you worried that you won’t be able to continue working?", and of course, a significant percentage answer that they indeed are worried. They ask: "Do you have to give up buying food you would like to buy?" and many respond, "Of course!" (They don’t specify exactly what type of food they’re talking about). They continue questioning: "Do you have to cut-back on heating?" (Who doesn’t?). In this fashion, they continue piling on similar questions.

And let us not forget – nearly half of the poor are Arabs. What do expect them to say? "Baruch Hashem, everything’s great?!" Or, that their lives in the State of Israel are a hundred times better than any Arab country in the world?!

And then, in shock, they report that approximately fifty percent of children from poverty-stricken families are forced to work. I was amazed: Only fifty percent of the children work?! In our family, all of our children work during vacations – whether it’s cleaning jobs, babysitting, waitressing, or as camp counselors – this, in addition to working in numerous volunteer jobs. Is this bad? No, the exact opposite – we see it as being helpful in teaching them the values of independence and responsibility.

The Housing Crisis

Here I must point out the responsibility of the left and center parties for the harsh rise in housing prices. Israel is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. No matter how hard we try, housing prices will continue to rise because, thank God, the population continues to grow.
The only solution is large-scale construction in Judea and Samaria, because even in the Negev and Galilee, development is currently hindered due to the struggles being conducted against illegal Arab construction, which does not permit systematic and sound planning.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
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