Why you should care
Because it’s not raining manna.
Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader credited as the father of the Jewish state, wrote of a utopian society in his novel Altneuland back in 1902. In it, he dreamed of “prosperity and security for all members of a multiethnic society,” according to Glenn Bowman in Surveillance and Control in Israel/Palestine: Population, Territory and Power. So Herzl would probably be shocked to learn:
One-third of Israeli children live in poverty.
Official statistics from Israel’s National Insurance Institute indicate that 18.8 percent of families live below the poverty line, including 31 percent of children. But Latet, a humanitarian aid charity, says that the rate is even higher: Its 2015 Alternative Poverty Report has 30.2 percent of adults and a whopping 35.2 percent of children living in poverty — totaling 2.6 million Israelis. Even scarier is the fact that the NII report — with its more modest figures — showed the severity of poverty worsening by 10 percent between 2013–14. The OECD, meanwhile, says Israel is second only to Mexico in terms of highest poverty levels among member countries.
So why are so many struggling to make ends meet in the land of milk and honey? Politicians and activists point to demographics, low salaries and the cost of living. The principal factor, according to Merav Michaeli, a Knesset member in the Zionist camp, is Israel’s birth rate. Israel leads the developed world with an average of three children per woman, compared with the OECD average of 1.7, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Michaeli says there are two populations within Israel that “give birth to a lot of children,” the ultra-Orthodox community and Arabs, although the rate has been dropping in recent years among the latter. For ultra-Orthodox men, studying Torah takes precedence over work, so many work only part-time, if at all, and live off charity and government allowances. “For an allowance, this may be a lot, but it is only an allowance, not an income,” says Michaeli, and indeed the NII report shows that more than half — 54.3 percent — of ultra-Orthodox families live below the poverty line (as do 52.6 percent of Arab families).
Nominal Israeli house prices, meanwhile, rose by 80 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund, which pegs the likelihood of a housing bust in the near future at a frightening 20 percent. And while Israel has been enjoying lower unemployment rates since 2010, according to Statista, that hasn’t been reflected in salary levels. “The realistic value of salaries in Israel has been stock for 15 years,” Michaeli says. Prices for homes and everyday goods, however, continue to rise in line with the world economy, and this constantly growing gap means that most Israelis — even those above the poverty level — are getting relatively poorer.
Many point to government austerity measures in recent years that have, among other things, hit children’s allowances. Israel’s Social Security administration warned that would lead to thousands more youngsters living below the poverty line, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Israeli salaries need to rise, says Michaeli, who also believes the government should do more to help poor families in general. “There’s no real option of fighting poverty without allowances,” she says.
Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state, in other words, may have been realized, but his hope for universal prosperity within it still needs a lot of work.