February 15, 2012
Shatil had a significant presence in the halls of power Wednesday, as the Knesset marked International Day for the Eradication of Poverty for the third year. Dozens of ordinary citizens filled a conference room with testimony of what life under the hard yoke of poverty is like and attended Knesset committee meetings called to discuss the issue. The conference, Dialogue between Residents, Organizations and Policy Makers: Toward a National Program to Eradicate Poverty was organized by the NIF-backed Forum for the Eradication of Poverty, a group composed of people living in poverty, social organizations (including Shatil), experts and professionals.
The launch of a new Knesset lobby to eradicate poverty, the fruit of the labors of Shatil and the Forum, was announced at the conference.
Twelve MKs and members of the press heard a young woman from Lod lament that her three-year-old knows what a gun looks like but did not know what building blocks are. An 80-year-old with the energy of a woman half her age passionately denounced the practice of removing children from the homes of poor single mothers and paying boarding schools for their tuition. “Why doesn’t the government give half of that money to the mother so she can raise her own children?!” she asked indignantly. Yet another described the unbearable pain she feels as she watches her one-year-old granddaughter become the third generation raised in poverty. She called on the government to replace the minimum wage with a “livable wage” with which workers could afford to pay for basic necessities.
Poverty in Israel is on the rise, and employment is no longer a guarantee against it. The neo-liberal promise of a trickle down economy has not worked. According to an OECD report, among the member nations, Israel is the member with the widest social gaps and highest number of poor. Addressing the conference, Shas MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem called poverty “Israel’s shame.”
Israeli Prize laureate, Professor Yona Rosenfeld, who chairs the Forum for the Eradication of Poverty said: “The summer protest proved that the high cost of living in Israel is harming ever larger portions of the population. The tents that are still standing are just one expression of the fact that many in Israel don’t have the basics for a life with dignity. The time has come for us, like Occupy Wall Street and other movements, to demand from the government: Take care of the ordinary citizen and not just companies that trade on the stock exchange.”
Israel must ask difficult questions, he added: “Does the government of 2012 contribute to reducing poverty or to expanding social gaps? Is our tax structure progressive or does it deepen polarization?” Only real answers to such questions will lead to policies that can alleviate poverty, he said.
Activists from throughout the country, who attended the day initiated by the Forum, wondered whether the talk this year would lead to action.
“The sole purpose of the anti-poverty lobby, composed of 20 MKs, is to pass legislation that will eradicate poverty,” said Shatil Center for Policy Change lobby expert, Shmulik David “The lobby and all the organizations involved in the day are demanding that the government formulate a program to eradicate poverty.” The lobby, headed by MKs Zvulun Orlev, Daniel Ben Simon, Mohamad Berakha and Shlomo Mola, is one of the fruits of Shatil’s labor in the anti-poverty arena.
As part of the day, Shatil’s Equality and Dignity for Women in Israel initiative brought a number of occupational counselors — government employees who guide old age home residents and hospital patients in activities — to testify as a test case for a session on employment in mid life conducted by the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, chaired by MK Tzipi Hotoveli. Like many middle aged women, these counselors, most of whom have at least an academic degree and perform tasks critical to elderly patients’ wellbeing, earn an hourly minimum wage and enjoy no benefits. Unlike in other countries, where they are known as recreational counselors, in Israel their profession is unrecognized and they are seen as occupational therapy assistants. At the meeting, the Ministry of Industry and Labor committed to lowering the cost of the training for these counselors, which they pay for themselves, from NIS5,000 to about NIS1,000 and to create additional training and advancement opportunities for them.
Other impact from the day: The Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee expressed anger at the paltry budget and inadequate services provided by the Employment Service, which is responsible for professional training for the un- and under-employed, and vowed to pressure for additional funds and to find ways to solve the problems of the service.
The Knesset Finance Committee discussed the issue of a fair living wage and asked the Knesset research department for a detailed report on the circumstances of employees who earn a less than minimum wage and on the possibilities for instituting a fair living wage.
The decisions were backed by position papers written by Forum members with guidance from Shatil.