The Often Forgotten Connection Between Disabilities and Poverty

By Goldie Sternbuch

Poverty is color blind and ageless. After years of helping members of the most marginalized part of Israeli society through Meir Panim’s restaurant-style soup kitchens, I have come to appreciate that anyone at anytime can find him or herself wondering from where his/her next meal will come.

But there is one population that I consistently see walk in the door: individuals with physical, psychological, emotional or other disabilities.

This month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. As such, it is the right time to point out something often forgotten in the disabilities discussion: disabilities are a major factor in trapping people in a vicious cycle of poverty.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are more than twice as many unemployed people with disabilities than those who are able bodied. And, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, half of all working adults who experience at least one year of economic hardship have a disability. In addition, two-thirds of people who have experienced long-term poverty are disabled.

In Israel, there are approximately 1.41 million people living with disabilities, some 17 percent of the population. Employment of disabled people is reportedly on the decline. At the same time, some disabilities require increased living expenses, such as for household help, special equipment or medical bills.

In Israel, disability benefits have not kept up with the cost of living, causing regular protests from disabled citizens seeking to normalize their lives. Even with the recently approved increase in disability benefits, the numbers do not match the reality of people’s expenses.

Beginning in 2021, those with “100 percent disability” (people who cannot work at all) are slated to receive 3,700 NIS/month (about $1,060). And this represents an increase! People with disabilities are forced to choose between medicine and food, and seek help from other sources, such as Meir Panim or other area food programs.

Disabled individuals capable of working often find that employers are anxious about hiring them. Employers fear the extra support these employees might need or that they will be limited in the tasks they can perform. If people with disabilities are hired, they are often hired at lower or reduced salaries compared to able-bodied people doing the same job.

It goes without saying that impoverished people have food insecurity. Lack of nutritious food leads to illness, which leads to medical bills, which leads to sick days, as well as unemployment. It is a vicious cycle.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of poverty as they can experience malnutrition, which leads to disease and disabilities. A hungry child cannot concentrate in school, causing a poor education and thus becoming unemployable or only employable in low paying jobs. These factors cause poverty to pass from generation to generation.

In order to stem the cycle, one of Meir Panim’s social welfare programs is to provide after-school enrichment to youths at risk and from struggling families. These groups have proven themselves, as the vast majority of kids coming through our doors and receiving tutoring and mentoring report a strong desire to succeed far and beyond what they experience at home.

Another aspect of marginalized people is loneliness. Scientific studies show that impaired socialization can lead to psychiatric disorders including depression, drug and alcohol abuse, Alzheimer’s disease as well as physical disorders such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cancer and heart disease. In recognition of this, Meir Panim encourages the young and old who participate in our programs to interact with others at our soup kitchens and other organized activities.

Impoverished, as well as disabled citizens should be a concern of all of us. This Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, let’s focus on employing people with disabilities, helping them get equal access to an education, and provide new and more programs to ensure that no one in the Jewish community with a disability goes hungry.

In the end, we all win.

Goldie Sternbuch is director of overseas relations for Meir Panim.