The ADVA Institute has just issued it latest report on Israel's deepening income gap. According to the report, nearly one in five wage earners are living below the poverty line.
Typically, the release of new poverty figures generates large headlines in the chareidi press, and the figures are seized upon as proof of the government's failure in this area and of the need to return child subsidies to former levels.
That is not going to happen, I would guess, no matter how grim the poverty figures. Periodically, particular coalition constellations – such as the current government's need to retain Shas in the coalition – may lead to a temporary increase in child subsidies. But there are important factors militating against a dramatic long-term rise in child subsidies.
By far the largest beneficiaries of child subsidies are the Arab sector: There are over twice as many Arabs as chareidim in Israel. Since the cut in child subsidies, there has been a substantial drop in the Arab birthrate (which, Baruch Hashem, has not been accompanied by a parallel drop in the chareidi birthrate). The decline in Arab birthrates is crucial to Israel's demographic survival.
Future government efforts to relieve poverty are more likely to take the form of a negative income tax and job-training programs. Even economist Milton Friedman, the great champion of free market capitalism and opponent of the welfare state, supported a negative income tax, which returns money to low-income wage earners. (Unlike raising the minimum wage, a negative income tax does not create a disincentive to employers to hire new workers.) But the negative income tax only benefits those who are working.
Besides the likely futility of relying on a return to previous levels of child support, an over focus on government subsidies can cause us to forget an important fact: the primary responsibility for supporting our families rests upon us. While the Israeli chareidi community has been largely untouched by the social pathologies associated with welfare recipients around the world, a certain "culture of dependency" – the sapping of individual initiative that accompanies long-term dependence on welfare – has not entirely passed us by.
More than twenty years ago, while returning from the levaya of the Steipler Gaon, zt"l, I asked my rosh yeshiva, why the Chazon Ish had chosen to live in Bnei Brak, rather than in the "old yishuv" of Jerusalem. He replied that the Chazon Ish felt that more than 200 years of the "chaluka" system (contributions from Jewish communities abroad) had deprived the "old yishuv" of its vitality, and he hoped to build something entirely new in the "new yishuv." And that was before there were any government social benefits to speak of.
We tell ourselves that poverty in the chareidi world is a function of our commitment to Torah learning. And to a large extent that is true. But there are large pockets of endemic poverty in our world that have little to do with Torah learning. The majority of those who descend on every affluent Torah community abroad are not in full-time learning nor do their efforts allow them much time for Torah study.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky once explained wryly how the halacha that one should fast on a yahrtzeit had been replaced by serving food in honor of the deceased. The intermediate step, he suggested, was that people who found fasting too difficult made a siyum instead in honor of the departed parent. But eventually, people forgot about the siyum, and all that was left in place of the fast was the food. In a similar fashion, the primacy of Torah learning has too often become transformed into a disdain for work even when the Torah learning has been forgotten. That disdain finds no support in Torah sources.
A 19-year-old appeared at my door recently, and told me he was collecting for his family of 13. I gave him a fairly large sum, but when he returned a few weeks later, I asked him whether he was still learning in yeshiva. He looked at me as if I were crazy to think that he could still be learning while serving as the principal support for his large family.
I told him that I was impressed by how articulate he was, and felt that he had talents that could be developed. But if he continued on his present path, he could look forward to remaining a schnorrer for the rest of his life. If so, he would simply join a growing community in which begging is the most common "profession," and in which there is no social safety net in tragic cases because there are so few within the extended family or social circle who work. He was profoundly grateful when I referred him to a chareidi-run job training program.
Severing the relationship between individual effort and money, as government welfare benefits tend to do, leads to distortions of everything connected to family finances. Shmuel Margulies, the founder of Mesila, an organization that assists debt-ridden chareidi families and businesses, told me not long ago that when he first opened his doors, he thought it would be sufficient to provide families with loans and a bit of counseling to help put them back on their feet. He soon realized, however, that without financial counseling the families would, in most cases, quickly find themselves back in the same position as before. And eventually, he came to the conclusion that even before counseling there needs to be a full-scale revamping of how we educate our young about finances.
When I was a kid – admittedly not yesterday – it was common for parents, even affluent ones, to tell their children to earn the money for something like a bicycle. And summer jobs were part of life. In that way, we learned something of the value of a dollar. The near year around yeshiva schedule does not provide Israeli chareidi boys with similar opportunities to learn those lessons.
A disconnect between effort and family income, which is one effect of government benefits, creates a sense of entitlement to even those things that would have been considered unimaginable luxuries one or two generations ago, including an apartment for every newlywed couple. Even in families struggling to make basic ends meet, it is not uncommon to find a number of children with their own cell phone and family cell phone bills of a thousand shekels or more per month. In supermarkets catering to the cost-conscious chareidi consumer, one still sees shopping carts piled high with soft drinks and junk food that are not only unhealthy but costly.
Poverty is exacting a terrible toll on the Israeli chareidi community. The government has an important role to play in reducing the deepening despair. But so do we as individuals and as a community.