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For Israel’s Growing Cadre of Poor, Government Cutbacks Take Tough Toll

Gabriella Friedlander recently stopped paying her mortgage. “It was either paying the mortgage or having electricity, water and gas,” said the 38-year-old single mother, her hands clasped tightly together on a small crochet-covered table in her dimly lit apartment.

Friedlander, who works part time as a care-giving assistant for the elderly, is among the swelling ranks of Israel’s working poor. She works five hours a day, six days a week, for a monthly salary of $451.

Government assistance brings her income each month up to about $700, but she still struggles to make ends meet.

Massive government cutbacks in social spending over the past year have hit the working poor especially hard. Friedlander now receives about $225 less in aid than she did before the cutbacks.

“It’s killing us,” she said.

Her reduced income means she can no longer afford physical therapy for her 11-year-old son who suffers from a rare connective tissue disorder. It also means that making the $383 monthly mortgage payment on her apartment, located in a block of run-down concrete buildings in an impoverished Ashdod neighborhood, is out of the question.

Meanwhile, Friedlander, who immigrated to Israel from Argentina in 1997, is sinking into debt.

According to Israeli government standards, Friedlander is floating just above the poverty line of $640 a month for a household of two individuals.

The number of poor in Israel rose by 7.4 percent in 2003 to 1.42 million people, according to the National Insurance Institute 2003 poverty report.

That means that some 22 percent of the population — or slightly more than one in five Israelis — is living below the poverty line. In 2002, 20 percent of the population lived in poverty.

The gap between rich and poor in Israel rises every year and is among the highest in the Western world. Children are especially hard hit: Of the 43,000 Israelis now living below the poverty line, 26,000 are children.

A financial crisis brought on by the intifada and a general economic downturn has forced Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engineer national austerity budgets. And politicians of both major political parties have agreed for nearly a decade on the need to drastically reduce Israel’s bloated public sector.

But experts say Netanyahu’s economic reform policies, which have included dramatic cuts in public spending on items such as welfare payments, have been especially tough on the poor.

Not only children have felt the impact: Single-parent families, large families, Israeli Arabs and immigrants also have been hit. They are among the groups that in the past have benefited from child subsidies that now have been greatly reduced.

The violence of the intifada and the world economic downturn have hurt Israel’s economy, but the rise in poverty figures are attributed largely to the government cutbacks.

Israel’s economy is showing signs of recovery, but full-time jobs paying above the minimum wage can be hard to find for the country’s poorest segments.

Furthermore, much of the economic growth is taking place at the top — in the high-tech sector and among those who invest in the stock market.

Friedlander has tried to find additional work, posting ads in newspapers and hanging signs on trees, but has had no luck so far.

She didn’t foresee this situation when she immigrated to Israel. Friedlander grew up in a middle class family in Buenos Aires, attended Zionist schools and camps and saw her future in the Jewish state.

“For 40 years my parents gave money to the JNF and Hashomer Hatzair and now I look at myself, having to turn to aid associations for help. It really hurts,” she said.

Friedlander said she feels better off than many of her friends who are also single working mothers, because when unexpected costs come up — her refrigerator battery died last month, for example — her family in Argentina often sends money to help.

The number of single-parent Israeli households beneath the poverty line increased by 11 percent in 2003. Of the 60 percent of single parents who work, 30 percent do so only part-time, according to statistics compiled by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem.

Responding to the poverty report, Netanyahu said the answer was to get people back to work.

“That’s the way to treat poverty — to get people to go to work,” he said. He has said the previous welfare system in Israel was bloated and helped prevent the emergence of a modern, capitalist economy.

The Finance Ministry said its policies were not to blame for the increase in poverty. In a statement, the ministry said poverty grew between 1996-2002, a time when welfare payments were increased by 50 percent.

Jack Habib, director of the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, said one problem is that the government’s economic reforms have not been coupled with employment assistance. In fact, he said, there is less money now for job training than there used to be.

In a time of economic recession and social spending cuts, the government must do more than just tell people to get jobs; it must help create those jobs and facilitate the search for those looking for work, he said.

“Clearly there needs to be a major national effort for employment,” Habib said. “There needs to be focused effort to make that happen.”

With unemployment reaching 10.7 percent in 2003, Habib noted that economic growth in Israel tends to be based in the high-tech sector, which rarely reaches lower-income groups.

The cycle of poverty feels overwhelming, said Vicky, a single mother from Rehovot who did not want her last name used.

She works part time an old-age home. She cannot afford day care, so she works half a day and leaves in time to pick up her 7-year-old son from school.

Vicky’s take-home salary from work is $316 a month, and she receives an additional $326 in government assistance. Before the government cutbacks, she received $600 in assistance.

“Before the cuts I could make ends meet,” she said, “But what does” Netanyahu “think we should do now?”

“He says go to work, but where are the jobs?” she added.

The government is exploring new ways to stop the growth in the poverty rolls. Among new initiatives is an experimental welfare-to-work program.

In addition, a government committee is looking into providing wage subsidies for low-income workers to increase the incentive to work and reduce poverty, Habib said.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor also is trying to give incentives to single parents by giving bonuses to those who complete their first year at work.

In general, though, the market can be tough, especially for single parents, most of whom are women.

“The job market is not good for single mothers, it is not sensitive to them, it is harder for them to find work,” said Shiri Regev Messalem, legal director of Itach, Women Lawyers for Social Justice, an organization that provides legal assistance to women of low socioeconomic status.

Regev Messalem said that in the year since the government’s public spending was cut back, an increasing number of women have turned to Itach for assistance.

“We are not getting so many queries from people asking if they are getting what they are owed at work, but whether or not they can survive on the salaries they are earning,” she said.

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