Why poverty must be front and center in this election campaign

 
one of the Pitchon Lev's, a poverty assistance organization, help centers. (photo credit: YAKI ZIMERMAN)
one of the Pitchon Lev's, a poverty assistance organization, help centers.
(photo credit: YAKI ZIMERMAN)

The most recent report by the OECD placed Israel at the highest rate of poverty among all of its member nations.

With the election campaigns for the twenty-first Knesset being released almost daily, new parties are being introduced, slogans are being drawn-up, and issues debated.
However, one issue that has yet failed to resonate with voters is the one that should concern us most deeply.
According to the annual report of the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi), released only a few weeks ago, a total of 1,780,500 Israelis, including 466,400 families and 814,800 children (some 21.2% of the population) are living below the poverty line.
These figures are from 2017, but reflect a rise from 18.5% from 2016. If this trend continues, a situation could arise in the Jewish state where almost one in four Israelis live in poverty.
The most recent report by the OECD placed Israel at the highest rate of poverty among all of its member nations. In the same report, Israel was also ranked as the country with the highest level of inequality among its financial sectors.
So while security, foreign relations, issues of religion and state, among others are high on campaign agendas, they should be trumped by the simple fact that Israel’s poor, underprivileged and deprived are not receiving the attention they deserve.
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan once said: “Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”
While we are understandably concerned about the threats emanating from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, an arguably far greater day-to-day threat for almost two million Israelis is the fact that many do not know where their next meal is coming from, or how they will pay their electric bills during a frigid winter.
With all the achievements and successes of Israel as a flourishing miracle, the Start-Up Nation and an economic powerhouse, the fact that so many Israelis are not able to afford basic goods and necessities on a month-to-month basis is a continuing blight on our nation that has yet to find a remedy.
Our leaders proudly tout and dazzle the public with government credit ratings, strong fiscal performances and growing international investment figures. However, it is clear that much of this is not felt at the public level, especially for the rapidly increasing number of Israelis who fall below the poverty line.
What we need to hear from our leaders and politicians is an urgent plan that details how to reverse these trends and ensure that the number of Israelis living below the poverty line decreases. We need a plan to ensure that we take special care of the elderly and immigrant groups, two populations with the highest increase in poverty according to the Central Bureau of Statistics figures.
Pulling more and more Israelis out of poverty needs to be considered a national emergency and should be at the forefront of the political agenda and campaign debates. It should start with our youth.
Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman has shown at Migdal Ohr what can be achieved on a small budget made up of private donations.
Migdal Ohr has demonstrated the benefits of ensuring that impoverished children receive a good education, where they don’t have to worry about food or other basic needs. Of the over 15,000 students that have passed through Migdal Ohr schools, 80% have gone on to pursue a higher education, almost double the national average.
These graduates have gone on to serve Israel in the upper echelons of the military, judiciary, educational and business
establishments, meaning that a modicum of investments by our government towards the basic needs of children in school will reap untold benefits for our society and nation.
This demonstrates that Israelis living below the poverty line do not need handouts; they need a helping hand to achieve their dreams and contribute to society.
There is a saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” which is associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in the economy, and that economic policy, particularly government one should focus on the general macroeconomic environment first and foremost.
However, this doesn’t appear to be true in the Israeli economy, which displays such a disparity between significant macroeconomic achievements and a rising impoverishment of certain sectors of the public.
There is certainly a debate to be had about the best way to go about this and perhaps the best time for this conversation is during an election campaign, which is supposed to deliver a marketplace of ideas to entice voters.
It is our role as voters to demand that our prospective elected officials deal with the issues and seek answers to the questions that we pose.
Poverty might not affect every one of us, but as citizens, Jews and Zionists we have a collective responsibility to make certain that we leave no one behind in our beloved State of Israel.
As the Book of Proverbs pleads: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
It is time to re-position the issue of poverty at the front and center of the political agenda.
The writer is the Executive Director of American Friends of Migdal Ohr.