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Number of Israelis in poverty shot up 50% since pandemic’s start, report finds

Over a quarter of a million households in Israel have fallen below the poverty line since the start of the pandemic, an increase of nearly 50 percent, a survey released Wednesday revealed.

According to the report by the Latet nonprofit, the portion of Israeli households living in poverty rose from 20.1 percent to 29.3% in 2020.

Those percentages revealed that an estimated 850,000 households in Israel lack essential housing, education, healthcare and food, with 268,000 households falling into poverty since the start of the pandemic earlier this year.

Latet works to combat poverty and food insecurity and supports 70,000 needy families annually via a network of charities. Its report estimated that around 143,000 families have joined the 513,000 families that were already suffering from food insecurity prior to the crisis, with 34,000 of the new additions experiencing it to a severe extent.

Food insecurity has been defined as the inability to ensure a constant supply of food that contains all the nutritional elements necessary for proper development and health. While it can lead to malnutrition, it is not the same thing. Indeed, it is a prime cause of obesity and is closely linked to disease and increased vulnerability to illnesses such as COVID-19.

The report also said that amid the pandemic, some 422,000 households, representing 14.5% of the country, have joined the 699,000 households (24.1%) already suffering from some form of economic distress.

Israel’s national poverty report is based on income alone, but Latet’s Alternative Poverty Report measures poverty according to households lacking in essential needs such as housing, education, healthcare, food security, and the ability to cover the cost of living.

Latet’s food insecurity figures, which it described as “conservative,” are much higher than those estimated by Leket, another large food aid charity. Last month, Leket suggested that the pandemic would add 145,000 individuals to 1.87 million Israelis (465,000 households) already facing food insecurity.

But whereas Latet has conducted and analyzed several questionnaires, Leket extrapolated its prediction on the basis of National Insurance Institute data about the pandemic’s effect on income. Almost a million people are now either unemployed or on leave without pay, that data shows.

The National Insurance Institute last surveyed food insecurity in 2016 and published its most recent poverty report last year, based on data for 2018. It is understood to be collecting new food security data with a view to publishing an updated report.

As The Times of Israel reported last month, charities shoulder most of the burden for food insecurity in Israel, with a lack of government funding leaving social welfare agencies largely helpless to respond.

“The rising cost of living, coupled with wage erosion and lack of a policy of distributive justice, are gnawing at the middle class, hurting underprivileged populations, widening gaps and limiting the prospect of social mobility,” Latet said.

It called on the government to embed at least NIS 225 million ($69 million) into the basic state budget, as a first step, to help around one-fifth of the families living in conditions of severe food insecurity.

Three measures of poverty

Latet’s research used three measures to assess economic distress: income, where poverty is officially defined as having a net income below 50% of the disposable median income (currently set at a monthly NIS 6,000 — $1,837); subjective evaluations by low income families; and inability to buy basic necessities in at least three of several categories such as food, medications and children’s school supplies.

Respondents scoring badly on one of the three measures were defined as being in economic distress. Those meeting two conditions were labeled poor.

The percentage of families that were poor and already doing without basic food items before COVID-19 has almost tripled under the weight of the crisis, it said.

Half of respondents to a questionnaire reported serious economic harm resulting from the pandemic.

A third of them possessed undergraduate degrees.

And yet of all those suffering economically and needing external support, 24% had not yet received it.

‘The most vulnerable are the most exposed’

Noting that the pandemic’s economic fallout is deepening inequality within the labor market, with the most vulnerable populations the most exposed, Latet found that of the families that were food insecure and receiving food aid before COVID-19, more than eight in ten reported no longer having enough money to buy sufficient food, with one-third testifying that their children either had to miss meals or make do with smaller portions.

These families were spending an average of NIS 7,550 ($2,315) a month on all of their needs, while their income totaled just NIS 5,104 ($1,565). More than half (55.6%) said their debt had grown as a result of the crisis, compared with just under 30% of the general population.

Three quarters (73.9%) said their children did not have enough computers to study online (compared with a third of the population as a whole), with three in ten households admitting that their children had missed school sessions because they needed to work to supplement family income.

A quarter of these families testified that their children’s social activities had worsened because they were too embarrassed to invite friends home.

At the other end of the age spectrum, more than 91% of elderly aid recipients said that their pensions were not enough to buy the basic necessities for a dignified life.

The ERI research and consultancy firm focused for Latet on economic hardship, questioning 1,350 people aged 18 and over in October 2020, with a maximum sampling error of 2.7%.

For a deeper view of food insecurity, the marketing research company Rotemar analyzed separate sets of data gathered earlier in the year from interviews with 1,196 food bank recipients, 119 non-profit organization directors and 503 representative members of the public.

Source: TOI