Wake-up call

Young Israeli Arab, Haredi children are six times more likely to live in poverty than non-Haredi Jewish kids, study finds

New report by Israel's Taub Center finds that most Haredi and Arab Israeli children under the age of four live below the poverty line, some government programs meant to help low-income families end up making situation worse

The majority of Arab and Haredi Israeli children up to age four live below the poverty line, at a more than six times higher rate than that of non-Haredi Jewish children, according to a new study by the social policy-focused Taub Center think tank that was released on Wednesday.

The study, which appears to be the first to look at poverty levels among children from birth to age four, found that 63% of Haredi children, approximately 110,000 of them, and 58% of Arab children, nearly 100,000 of them, live below the poverty line, compared to 9% of non-Haredi Jewish children under age four, amounting to roughly 50,000 children. Overall, the researchers found that 30% of all Israeli children up to four live below the poverty line.

The report relied on data from the National Insurance Institute and the Central Bureau of Statistics from 2018, the last year for which figures were both available and “comparable” to other years, according to the study’s lead researcher, Yael Navon from the Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality. Data were available from more recent years, but the 2020 figures, for instance, were skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic, making them less representative. 

The consequences of children below the age of four living below the poverty line are long-lasting and serious, Navon said.

“Any child living below the poverty line is — almost by definition — is not going to be able to live up to their full potential,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy.

By breaking down the population into these categories, Navon and her co-author, Liora Bowers, found significant differences in the lifestyle and economic factors between them, some of which appear to have an impact on poverty rates, while others do not.

In the case of non-Haredi Jewish Israelis, for instance, the marital status of the child’s parents correlates with poverty: 34% of children whose “head of household” is divorced live below the poverty line, compared to 8% of those whose “head of household” are married and 13% of those who are single. That factor is not relevant among Arab and Haredi Israelis, apparently because within their communities, divorce and separation are less common.

Fathers being unemployed, even if the mother was working in a full time position, was also a significant indicator of poverty among non-Haredi Jewish children, but not among Haredi and Arab children. (In Haredi households, the mothers are generally more likely to be the primary wage earner.) “This might be related to the larger gender wage gaps among non-Haredi Jews. This could also be due to some kind of self-selection mechanism based on cultural norms; while a mother not working could reflect a conscious decision to stay home with the young children, a father not working might be more likely to reflect illness, disability, or other challenges finding employment,” the researchers wrote.

Using multivariate logistic regression analysis, Navon and Bowers were able to isolate the effects of different factors that have been found to affect poverty levels — parental employment status, number of other children in the family, parental education levels, etc. — and found that when all of these things are equal, there is no significant difference between Haredi and non-Haredi Jewish Israelis in terms of poverty rates. However, “being an Arab definitely is” still a significant factor, even with all other characteristics being equal, Navon and Bowers wrote.

“The likelihood that young children in Arab households will live below the poverty line is [still] almost six times higher than their Jewish counterparts,” the researchers found.

Navon told eJewishPhilanthropy that she cannot say definitively why this is the case — it was outside the scope of this study — but that the finding demands further inquiry.

“It’s not the family structure or the employment or the other things that normally influence poverty,” Navon said. “In the Arab community, it is just more difficult to overcome the obstacles. We need to look into why.”

In the study — and in Israel in general — the official poverty line is a relative measure, defined as being 50% of the country’s median per capita net income. It is not measured by the lack of basic needs, what is known as “absolute poverty.” This is a significant distinction as it does not take into account the differences between communities as it relates to spending patterns and consumption, Navon said. To wit, a Haredi person living below the official poverty line may not consider themselves to be impoverished or wanting for anything.

“When my son goes to school, he sees that his friend has an Xbox [and wants one]. That doesn’t happen in the Haredi community. Also in terms of prices — we know that Haredi chains have lower prices — there are also gemachim,” Navon said, using a common abbreviation for gemilut chasadim, or acts of kindness, which refers to lending libraries, free loan societies and other charities that are commonly found in the Haredi community that offer everything from wedding dresses to furniture for free.

And yet, despite these societal differences, the effects of living below the poverty line are still significant for the children and for society as a whole, Navon said. The parents of children living below the poverty line generally spend less on early childhood education than those living above the poverty line, which may reflect lower quality care, for instance.

“We know that these disparities in early childhood are the basis of disparities as people get older and in their ability to accumulate capital,” she said.

While many of the findings were unsurprising — more educated parents were found to be far less likely to have children living below the poverty line, as were households in which both parents worked full time — others were more unexpected, the researchers said.

They found, for instance, that income support and unemployment allowances — two government programs that are meant to help families experiencing economic hardship — do not seem to be effective, particularly for Haredi households.

Navon said she was both “surprised and saddened” to find that one government program aimed at reducing poverty through direct transfer payments had the opposite effect in some cases, particularly for Arab Israeli families. This is because the taxes that the households had to pay after receiving the payments ended up being higher than the payments themselves. 

“There are families — it’s on the margins, but it’s enough that it happens — who after getting different government transfers end up below the poverty line. These are people who weren’t below the poverty line before, but the government policy makes their situation worse,” Navon said.

“It’s not — heaven forbid — intentional, but there are 12,000 households like this. It’s outrageous,” she said.

The study also found that certain factors that strongly correlate with poverty may be overlooked and could serve as important indicators for social services. For instance, households in which both wage earners are self-employed are four times more likely to be below the poverty line than those where both wage earners are salaried employees.

“In such cases, welfare services or the [National Insurance Institute] should check if the household requires individualized support,” the researchers recommended.

Navon and Bowers have presented some of their initial findings in meetings with nonprofits and at conferences, but only now that the full research has been published will they begin sharing it with government offices to try to correct some of the policies that do not sufficiently prevent people from falling below the poverty line or, in the case of the transfer payments cause some people to fall below the poverty line. In light of the ongoing war, however, it may take some time before they are able to seriously engage with this issue, she said.