According to the comprehensive poverty report published Tuesday by the National Insurance Institute, the number of poor Jewish families dropped from 16 percent in the years 2004 and 2005 to 14.7 percent last year, and their numbers have dropped by some 15,000. At the same time the level of poverty among Arab families rose from 50 percent to 54 percent, and the number of poor Arab families grew by 20,000.
Jews are leaving poverty behind, while Arabs are sinking deeper. Three years ago Arab families comprised some 31 percent of the overall poor families in Israel, while last year their proportion rose to 36 percent.
In the overall count of poor people the findings are even more extreme: The percentage of Arab citizens is nearing 50 percent of the overall poor population in Israel as opposed to 40 percent in 2004. This is the outcome of demographics: The poor Arab family comprises more than five members: The Jewish family comprises more than three members.
The growth in Arab poverty is reflected in the growth of poverty among children: A poor Arab family has an average of 2.7 children whereas a poor Jewish family only has 1.4 children. Therefore the higher the proportion of Arabs among the poor, poverty among the children of the State of Israel increases.
In 2004 there were some 714,000 poor children in Israel, 335,000 of whom were Arab children – 47 percent. In 2006 there were some 800,000 poor children, of which 420,000 were poor Arab children – 52 percent.
In the past three years the number of poor Arab children leaped by 25 percent whereas the number of Jewish children from families living beneath the poverty line dropped somewhat. Two out of every ten Jewish children live in families whose net income is lower than the poverty line. Six out of every ten Arab children live in poor families.
Social groups claim that there are more than 750,000 hungry children in Israel. This is an exaggeration. However, if 550,000 children living in Israel occasionally go hungry, some 400,000 of them are Arab children.
The Arab face of poverty is also evident in the unexpected growth in the percentage of poor families with a single breadwinner. Analysis of the poverty report shows that although the head of the family is employed it does not lift the family above the poverty line; it only changes his or her registered status – from receiving an allowance to being employed.
In 2004 there were 139,000 poor families in which the heads of families were employed and tried to provide for them honorably, yet they were unable to do so due to their low income. In 2006, following a drop in unemployment figures and reinforced training and job placement activities, the number of families in which heads of families were employed rose to 162,000 – a rise of 16.5 percent, the majority in the Arab sector.
Arab poverty crisis
As poverty in Israel has become increasingly more "Arab," it has also become the "poverty of workers." When a Jew finds employment, remuneration for his work suffices to lift the family above the poverty line. This is reversed in the Arab sector. Those joining the workforce receive such pitiful remuneration that their income does not enable them to lift their families above the poverty line.
In Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's social agenda, as per the recommendations of the National Economic Council headed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, a target of increased employment in the 25-64 age group was set. The objective is to increase the workforce to approximately 72 percent by 2010 in the overall population within this age group from the current 69 percent.
This is an addition of some 90,000 workers that exceeds natural growth figures. Half the new workers are set to replace foreign workers.
Will the improvement in employment lead to a drop in poverty levels? This will not happen without government policies ceasing to speak in generalized terms instead of focusing on the lion's share of "poor workers" - The Arab sector, and following it at a great distance, the ultra-Orthodox sector.
The "proactive" policy recommended by Professor Trajtenberg must be customized for specific community needs whose economic plight it is meant to improve. If the only change implemented by 2010 is the replacement of foreign workers with Israeli-Arab workers with the same salary, the rise in Arab poverty will continue, despite the rise in employment.
We can continue ignoring the figures and continue showing the worn out images of long lines of people waiting for food packages in Jewish communities. But this is a pretense. Poverty among the Jewish population in Israel, which wasn't dramatic even two years ago, is gradually dropping. Arab poverty, which was tragic in the past, has already turned into a crisis.