By Judith Gelman
Recently, I received my local food bank’s periodic newsletter with a photo of several Knesset members and other Israeli dignitaries shaking hands with the food banks own machers. The Israelis came to study state-of-the-art centralized food banking with the goal of adding this to their own arsenal in the fight against hunger.
Here were two causes dear to my own heart joining hands. My husband Steve Salop and I are long time donors to the Capital Area Food Bank, which is also a recipient of annual grants from Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, another of our favorite US charities. As an Ameinu board member and through my involvement with New Israel Fund, I am very much aware of the burgeoning hunger problem in Israel.
In many ways, this is a perfect shidduch—the Capital Area Food Bank serves a metro area of about 7 to 8 million, about the same population as Israel’s. Hunger rates are comparable too.
The Capital Area Food Bank has food retrieval, storage and distribution down to a science. Its huge warehouse (soon to be replaced by a new mega-huge warehouse capable of handling 40 million pounds of food a year) accepts donations from all the large local grocery chains and food distribution groups as well as from individuals, restaurants and groups doing food drives. This is supplemented with food purchased at wholesale with monetary donations. The food is then distributed to feeding programs and pantries throughout the metropolitan area. It also coordinated the direct donation of perishable food from local grocery stores and restaurants to nearby programs.
So why did I feel so sad reading this story?
As much as it might help with the current hunger crisis in Israel, investing in a large state-of the-art food bank is a step towards recognizing that “hunger” is an endemic and institutionalized aspect of Israeli society, not a transitory phenomenon. It shows an acceptance of the status quo, where 22 percent of Israelis are “food insecure” and where 30 percent of Israeli children live below the poverty line. But this status quo is quite new–less than a decade old–and is the direct result of government “reforms” undertaken in 2002. Hunger was a foreseeable consequence of these new policies, but Israel’s leaders appear to have thought they could adopt a US-inspired welfare and benefits system without suffering poverty rates and income inequality that mirror those in the US.
In the past 6 years, the Standard of Living (SOL) of the general Israeli population has risen, while it has fallen for the elderly, widows, disables and other weak sectors of the population. This decrease in the SOL for these groups is the direct result of benefit cuts for unemployment, income support and the child allowance. The changes are drastic and in many cases draconian.
Income supports have been cut across the board–in cases where the cuts might create incentives for recipients to change their behavior and in cases where there is no way that the cuts can change behavior. For example, Israelis injured on the job now receive replacement income for a maximum of 90 days instead of 180 days; after 90 days, they must qualify for permanent disability to receive benefits. At the same time, qualifying for permanent disability has become more difficult and takes longer. Some individuals will go back to work sooner but many fall between the cracks—too injured to work but not permanently injured or not permanently injured enough for benefits.
Families are the worse hit. Income supports for families have fallen between 25% (for families where neither parent works) to 60% (for families where parents work at low wage jobs). Maternity grants have fallen from 40% of average wages to 6%. The child allowance system, where grants had been larger for each subsequent child, is converting to a flat system and by 2009 will be 14% lower than the rate for the first child was in 2002. The new system reduces the incentives for poor families to have more children. Maybe that is a good idea, even a great idea, but the system also severely penalizes existing poor families—the new allowances are too low to feed, clothe and house the children who were born under the old system of incentives.
There are reductions in every benefits program—the disabled elderly are entitled to fewer hours of care, unemployment benefits are lower, the list goes on and on. Only pension benefits have risen, slightly.
In part because it has drastically reduced its system of income supports, Israel has changed from being the non-communist developed country with the most egalitarian income distribution to having one of the least egalitarian distributions of income in the developed world, second only to the US. The growth in hunger and the increase in food insecurity are the direct results of this change.
A food bank, no matter how large, regardless of how well it employs state-of-the-art technology, is only a band-aid on a broken societal system that accepts that sectors of the population are inherently unable to care for themselves without the help of soup kitchens and food pantries. Food banks are not a cure for hunger; they are an efficient palliative care system for the chronic disease of poverty.
How very sad that members of Knesset should be exploring how to build a better system of palliative care for the newly acquired chronic disease of poverty in Israel. Instead, they should be searching for real cures. Those cures probably won’t be found in the US, where we need food banks precisely because we would rather live with the effects of poverty than address its root causes. But the great disparity in income distribution and the poverty it creates need not be part of economic prosperity—hunger and poverty are much less prevalent in Europe than in the US. There is hunger in Europe and there are food banks, but there are also systems of income supports that limit the extent of hunger and food insecurity.
No one expects Israel to return to the (possibly apocryphal) socialist days when the mother of 12 pushing the teacart through the bank earned more than the single childless manager of the same branch. Today, it is too easy for the bank manager to find a high paying job somewhere else in the world. But what about the tea lady, whose cart is obsolete, a symbol of a simpler time? Either she can be trained for a productive role in today’s economy or she and her children can be relegated to the social sidelines, to live off the leftovers unused by the more productive and prosperous members of society. The best way to organize and provide those leftovers is through a food bank. But a better way to organize a society is to have fewer citizens living off scraps.
With a world of possible solutions to embrace, it is indeed sad to see Israeli leaders coming to explore the methods US charities have adopted for ameliorating problems far to systemic to be addressed by non-governmental entities.