Can we talk seriously about poverty?
Child allowances were back in the news last week with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On’s call for a further 17 shekel per child monthly cut in next years budget. Even at current rates, a family with eight children under 18 is receiving one-third of what it did prior to the Halpert Law, and one-quarter of what it received under the Halpert Law, before the Law triggered a vicious backlash that resulted in the slashing of child allowances.
Meanwhile, many of the items in the basic food basket distributed by Yad Eliezer have nearly doubled in the past year. For a number of months, the Yad Eliezer warehouse has been near empty and the monthly food baskets worth about 250 shekels have not gone out to nearly 8,000 families. The pleading calls to the Yad Eliezer offices make clear how crucial even that one food basket can be. It is often the difference between sending children to bed and off to school hungry or not.
The poverty figures are well known. What is less frequently discussed, however, is the toll that crushing poverty takes on individual lives and our society as a whole. I would not go so far as the talmid chacham who recently told me that poverty underlies every one of our problems as a society. But I would say that poverty exacerbates, sometimes greatly, every single problem from drop-out youth to marital discord. Speak to any chareidi social worker, working mainly with low-income clients, and you will quickly understand all the multiple consequences of never-ending financial stress.
Every expert in the field of “at-risk” youth, for instance, will tell you that learning difficulties are a leading predictor of later drop-out. Many early learning problems can be overcome. Tutoring, different forms of remedial therapies, and sometimes drugs or alternative medicine remedies can all play a major role. But tutoring is expensive, often prohibitively so for a family struggling to put food on the table. And even where therapies are covered by health plans, stressed parents, with multiple children to attend to and no car to easily transport the child in need, may simply not take advantage.
If lack of money is the subject of perpetual discussion, not to mention fighting, between parents, then chareidi life may come to be associated in the children’s minds with deprivation and strife. No matter how much genuine mesiras nefesh the parents have made for Torah, the children may focus more on their own deprivation and reject the way of life that they associate with being constantly denied.
Severe financial stress intrudes in many intangible ways. Constant money worries present challenges to one’s ehrlikeit in financial dealings. It makes us, as a society, extremely vulnerable to con men offering unbelievable returns on one’s money. And the long-term dependence on others for support – often given grudgingly or not at all – drains self-respect.
Considerations of money have distorted the shidduchim process beyond recognition and led to many ill-suited matches. Even where a young couple is well-matched, early financial pressures can make it difficult for them to get their bearings and establish a firm bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael in which to raise children.
And those pressures take their toll on our health. When I read a glossy flyer in shul about a family in which 13 kids are sitting at home because they cannot afford school or yeshiva tuitions, it is no surprise that the family breadwinner has collapsed under the strain. Illness, it has been said, is the vacation of the poor.
THREE SOLUTIONS ARE commonly offered to the destructive poverty in the Israeli chareidi community (though the problem is hardly limited to Israel): greater government support; increased contributions from rich Jews abroad; and adopting a simpler lifestyle. Each is a thin reed upon which to pin hopes for a solution.
Even representing a crucial bloc in the fragile government coalition, Shas has been unable to make any headway on its number one legislative goal: increasing child allowances. And Shas’s demands are exceedingly modest – no more than 30 shekels per month per child, or 240 shekels for a family with eight children. That does not even cover the (reduced) tuition for one son in yeshiva.
The sharp downturn in real estate and financial markets – two areas in which a great deal of the wealth of the frum community abroad was concentrated – have reminded us once again of how tenuous private financial support can be. Fundraisers returning from abroad say that they have never had such a hard time setting up meetings, much less obtaining sizeable donations.
True, if all the rich frum Jews in the world were to give 80% of their income to tzedakah and forego all personal luxuries, the most pressing communal needs might be answered. But that is never going to happen, and if it did, there would soon be no more super-wealthy Jews. Just as an 80% tax rate would soon dampen all economic initiative, so would giving such a percentage to tzedakah.
No doubt many families could find room to cut the family budget, starting with cellphones, cigarettes, and wedding baubles. And if everyone lived as simply as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, there would be fewer families feeling a severe financial crunch.
But for families for whom the Yad Eliezer food basket is the crucial lifeline, who choose every month between paying the water or the electicity bill, and who cannot even think about school tuitions, there is nothing in the budget to cut. Even the extremely simple two-room apartments in which the afore-mentioned Torah giants raised their large families in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak would be way beyond the reach of most young couples.
There is no housing for young couples. As a consequence, prices of small apartments in what were once considered less desirable areas are rising by $30,000 or more per year. Baruch Hashem, Torah can be learned anywhere, and there will one day be large Torah communities developing on the peripheries, but those are still years away.
The widespread poverty in the chareidi world – according to government statistics 18% of Israelis living below the poverty line are chareidi – will only worsen, as the parental resources to assist each successive generation become thinner and thinner. What the solutions might be I do not know. But it is clear that we cannot afford to hide our heads in the sand and not address the issue.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on August 27, 2008