New figures released by the National Insurance Institute state that 1.7 million Israelis, including over 800,000 children, are living in poverty. In Jerusalem, 55 percent of children live below the poverty line (down from 58 percent in 2015), followed by similar numbers in northern and southern Israel.
“How can we feel good that there is some lessening of people living in poverty in Israel when the numbers are still shocking?” Goldie Sternbuch, Director of Overseas Relations for Meir Panim. “Meir Panim’s restaurant-style soup kitchens located throughout the country are still filling up each day with hungry people.”
For the past 16 years, Meir Panim has provided immediate and long-term relief to impoverished young and old living in Israel through their network of welfare programs, including soup kitchens. “Our top priority is giving hungry people a hot, nutritious meal on a daily basis,” continued Sternbuch. “This is not only a life-saving act; it also gives marginalized people a social outlet and lets them know that they are cared about.”
Meir Panim annually serves 390,000 hot meals at its “free restaurants.” The centers are referred to as restaurants because patrons are served with a smile by friendly volunteers rather than having the degrading experience of standing in line for their meals.
The organization also delivers 168,000 Meals-on-Wheels to homebound, disabled and elderly people. “Time is running out to give victims of the Holocaust the dignity and care they deserve,” said Sternbuch. “Meir Panim volunteers not only deliver food but also socialize with the elderly, ensuring that they are checked on daily.”
Recognizing that Israel’s future depends on the health and education of today’s children, Meir Panim provides over 81,000 hot lunches each year to needy children, operates after-school youth clubs and gives struggling families prepaid food shopping cards and food packages around holidays.
The report stated, “despite the marked improvements in the poverty and inequality rates in 2016, and a drop of a full percentage point in two years in the incidence of poverty among individuals even according to OECD calculations, Israel’s relative position internationally continues to be grave. In the rankings of OECD countries, Israel continues to place at the top of the poverty scale.”
Individuals in Israel who net a monthly paycheck of NIS 3,260 ($920) or less are considered poor. Couples earning less than NIS 5,216 ($1,480) and families of five making less than NIS 10,000 ($2,800) are statistically impoverished.
Yet, Meir Panim notes an increase in the number of working poor who are asking for help. Though unemployment rates shrank from 5.3 percent to 4.8 percent between 2015 and 2016, poverty among the employed rose slightly. “We have noticed a deterioration in the basic standard of living of Israelis over the years,” shared Sternbuch. “Though we regularly help single-parent families, even those with two working parents struggle to keep food in their kitchens. We help them as well.”
Israel’s government recently slightly raised the minimum wage, as well as child and elderly welfare allowances. Though this helped Israel’s standing, the general feeling is that salaries still need to more closely align with the cost of living.
Joint (Arab) List MK Dov Khenin vowed to seek another increase in the minimum wage, which now stands at NIS 5,300 ($1,500) a month. “The bleak figures in the poverty report among working families show that the minimum wage is still not sufficiently high and must be raised further,” he said.
This reality leaves Meir Panim with the daunting task of filling in the needs of Israel’s poor which the government has yet to meet. “Each year, when the OECD report comes out, we know that government officials will declare that help must be increased,” said Sternbuch. “But, when people are hungry, we can’t wait for laws to be enacted. We need to provide immediate help. That’s what Meir Panim does every day.”