More haredim go back to work
Government policies are helping to bring more haredim into the workforce and out of poverty, but the Arab sector has shown little improvement, according to new statistics released last week by the Bank of Israel.
Arabs and haredim together make up 25 percent of the country's population but 60% of its poor. These sectors suffer from a number of socioeconomic factors that prevent them from benefiting from the general economic upswing in the country.
Although the haredi community is thought to have high rates of poverty because many men learn in yeshiva rather than join the workforce, various other factors contribute to the poverty rate. A closer look at the numbers found in the Bank of Israel's Annual Report for 2007 reveals a number of similarities between the haredi and Arab populations.
The average family size for both of these sectors is well above the country's average, which both increases the difficulty of the mother's leaving to work, and means that there are more mouths to feed on what is already a lower salary (an average of about NIS 5,500 versus NIS 9,500 in the general populace). Additionally, both Arabs and haredim are more likely to be found in areas far from the urban centers, where the greatest number of jobs are to be found; both suffer from lower-than-average post-high school education. Both are liable to face discrimination in the workplace, although that factor is difficult to estimate quantitatively.
But the numbers in the haredi sector are beginning to change, following a shift in government policies.
For years, many large Arab and haredi families got by with the help of government subsidies provided on a per-child basis. In recent years, those subsidies have been cut, forcing many to find work. On the other hand, more government money is being spent on child care for working mothers, training centers appropriate to the haredi lifestyle, and even subsidizing the salaries of new employees. This is in contrast to a government that, according to the central bank, spends relatively little on worker training, when compared to other developed countries.
The statistics released last week indicate that these policies have begun to bear fruit, at least in the haredi sector. The figures for the year of 2006 show haredi poverty rates dropping from 64% to 59%. Of course, that still leaves much room for improvement, especially when compared to the rest of Israeli society, with a 13.3% poverty rate.
Moshe Pinchas, a haredi resident of Ramat Bet Shemesh, told The Jerusalem Post those statistics accurately reflected the reality in the haredi world.
"A major factor is simply the natural growth of the community," he said. "It's impossible to continue keeping a closed society of such large proportions."
As the community grows, the exposure to secular living standards also increases, especially via the computer and Internet, and people are not content to live a bare standard of existence, Pinchas said. But that standard of living needs to be financed, and the stipends and subsidies that traditionally served as the financial backbone of the community can hardly provide for basic needs.
Pinchas, a graduate of Machon Lev (part of the Jerusalem College of Technology), cited the growing number of haredi technical institutions as another reason for the growth in haredi employment. Once a haredi Jew earns an academic degree, his prospects for being hired are equal, if not better, than those of secular Israelis, he said.
"The haredim are older, they are considered more trustworthy," Pinchas said. "No one asks about whether they served in the army. Years ago, I heard a haredi man getting kicked off of an Army Radio talk show because he said he hadn't served in the army. Now, nobody where I work asks me whether I served."
The shift toward acceptance of haredim by secular Israelis is paralleled by a change in haredi attitudes as well.
The men who left the yeshiva world in his native Bnei Brak, Pinchas said, were once looked down upon, but now it is accepted that a haredi Jew can avidly keep the mitzvot while maintaining a secular profession.
"People saw immigrants from America move in, like in Ramat Beit Shemesh, where I live, and they saw that one can work and still be haredi," he said. "On the other hand, hozrim b'teshuva [secular Jews who became religious] would keep their jobs, so you would see an Egged bus driver with traditional hassidic garb. That gave it legitimacy."
In Modi'in Illit, a number of hi-tech companies have learned that haredi women can constitute a cheap, dedicated team of employees. Hi-tech companies like Matrix train and then employ haredi women as IT workers, reaping both government subsidies and the benefit of a lower-than-average pay scale.
The Arab sector does not seem to have reaped similar benefits from such programs, with the poverty rate, according to the new report, an almost unchanged 56%. The report said welfare cuts have forced many Arab women into the workforce, but that this has not had an impact on Arab poverty levels. Unfortunately, the Bank of Israel statistics are too general to conclusively attribute that figure to any one cause.
No precise figures are available to gauge the difference in the funding of back-to-work programs between the Arab and haredi sectors, but a perusal of the programs listed in a recent Knesset report seems to indicate there is more emphasis on the haredim, perhaps due to their greater political clout.
It is also possible, as the Bank of Israel's Idit Sohlberg, a co-writer of the report, suggests, that the social and economic factors the Arabs face are simply too intransigent to be remedied by current government intervention.
Dr. Aziz Haidar of the Van Leer Institute said endemic discrimination against Arabs in both government and commerce was a prime reason behind Arab poverty.
"Those Arabs who stayed in the country in 1948 did so under a promise of full equality," he said on a videotape available at the institute's Web site. "That promise has yet to be fulfilled."
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