The world likes to believe that threats to Israel’s security by its neighbors are the country’s greatest concern. The narrative of two ancient peoples in one Holy Land fighting for their place in the world is a great story and leads to an uncanny number of headlines, the expenditure of a relatively large percentage of the UN’s energy and resources, and more divisive discussions and actions than are devoted to other – much bloodier – conflicts, such as those in the Congo and Sudan.
Actually, the greatest threat to Israel is poverty.
Believe it or not, despite the growth of the Israeli economy and the country’s unparalleled success in high tech (known to many as the “Start-Up Nation” phenomenon), about 25 percent of Israelis live in poverty.
In November 2010, the National Insurance Institute in Israel released its latest Report on Poverty. The report concluded that in 2009, 123,000 Israelis joined the “circle of poverty” and that 850,000 children and a growing number of working poor are now considered to be living below the poverty line.
It’s clear that poverty in Israel is spiraling out of control.
The gap between rich and poor in Israel is also growing rapidly as the middle class steadily disappears. In 2009, Israel’s middle class made up only 15 percent of the population, a decrease of nearly 20 percent since the 1980s. And the figure continues to shrink. This is dangerous if not deadly to the Israeli economy. A healthy economy is represented by a large middle class of workers with buying power.
While some of the recent statistics were impacted by the global recession, it is far from the whole story. Due to its own earlier troubles, Israel had put conservative banking and fiscal policies in place long before the global crisis, so the international downturn did not hit Israel as hard as it did most other countries. Even so, in 2007 numbers from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics showed that even when the economy was at its peak, great numbers of Israelis were falling from the middle class and having difficulty putting food on their tables.
No, the global recession is not to blame here. This is an older, more serious problem.
So, then, what is causing this increasing stratification of the haves and have-nots in Israel? Is it the inability of young advancing couples to save enough to buy capital at 40 percent down? Is it the government’s policy of encouraging a culture of not working among haredim? Is it an overly generous social welfare system that leads to people finding it easier to stay home and live off welfare checks than actively seeking employment?
Then there’s the issue of intergenerationalpoverty. Social status affects future wealth. This means that even if a child is intelligent and has high aptitude, the likelihood of success and a favorable position in life is considerably diminished if he or she was born into a poor family.
Instead of setting aside funds to keep the splinter political parties of the coalition happy, why doesn’t the Israeli government set aside funds for poor kids who can’t afford but desperately want a higher education and an opportunity at a career?
Many poor kids drop out of school in order to feed themselves, as they see few future rewards of even bothering to finish high school. A subsistence-items market will not support a strong economy. Where can scholarship money come from? Or money for longer school days? (School ends at around 1 p.m. in public schools in Israel.) Or money for rehabilitation programs for teenagers who have no place to call home?
What is keeping the long-term unemployed at home instead of out in the workplace? Maybe the government should look into implementing more welfare-to-work programs and providing vocational training.
Why are we bringing thousands of foreign workers into the country when we have hundreds of thousands of citizens out of work? Agricultural work and caring for the elderly may not be glamorous, but choosing to stay home instead of working in these fields shows there is a serious problem with the social welfare system, with the work ethic of many Israelis, and with the relevance and effectiveness of the educational system for the poor.