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Some 16% of families in Israel suffer from food insecurity and 21% of the population live below the poverty line — grave numbers compared to those in a majority of welfare states. A new study by the Taub Center examines the central policy tool adopted by Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with food insecurity – the distribution of food vouchers. The study found that there was a substantial gap between the number of families that received food vouchers and the number living below the poverty line in various towns. In Arab localities, and primarily in Bedouin localities, there was a large negative gap, while in Haredi communities there was a positive gap — that is, there were more families receiving food vouchers than there were living below the poverty line in these areas. This raises a suspicion of clientelism — an allocation of public resources by politicians aimed at increasing political support.
Food insecurity is a world-wide phenomenon, and its relation to poverty is widely accepted. In an effort to deal with it, welfare states grant benefits and operate a variety of assistance systems such as hot meals in schools and the distribution of food baskets or food vouchers. The steps taken in Israel included the establishment of a National Council for Food Security, provision of hot meals in schools, Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs support to non-profits that distribute food, and the Food Security Initiative of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs that helped over 30,000 families in 2022. In addition, during the COVID-19 period, the Ministry of Interior operated a program distributing food vouchers that assisted some 354,000 families. The program and its implementation came under a great deal of criticism, criticism that has been rekindled following plans to renew the program in the next few days.
A new study by Taub Center researchers Prof. John Gal, Ori Oberman, and Nir Kaidar, examines the effectiveness of the food voucher program and its implementation in dealing with food insecurity, focusing on the local level and the interface between the distribution of food vouchers and the incidence of poverty.
In the Haredi towns of Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, and Beit Shemesh, the share of families receiving vouchers was greater than the number of families living below the poverty line; in Arab, and Bedouin localities in particular, the opposite was the case
The program was budgeted NIS 700 million in 2021 during the COVID-19 crisis, and was administered by the Ministry of Interior. Food voucher distribution was carried out in three pulses with the first distribution carried out in the week before Passover and the elections for the 24th Knesset. The amount received by each family depended on the number of household members: in each pulse, the head of household and his/her partner received a credit of NIS 300 each, and additional family members were each credited with NIS 225, up to a maximum of NIS 2,400. The Ministry of Interior gave the local authorities the role of creating a data base of those eligible, ensuring uptake of the benefit, and providing information for those eligible. The localities were responsible for identifying eligibility based on a set of criteria set by the Ministry: the resident was eligible for at least a 70% reduction in municipal taxes (arnona) due to low income; the resident was a senior citizen receiving income support and was eligible for a 100% reduction in municipal taxes; or the monthly income of the household was not greater than the threshold set by the Ministry. The eligibility levels set by the Ministry of Interior for the last of these was such that the marginal income per family member for a family of up to 4 members was far below that of the poverty line (that is, a lower level of eligibility than would be prescribed by the poverty line), and for a family of 6 or more, it is above (a less stringent criterion). That is, clear preference was given to larger families.
In the Taub Center study, there was an average negative gap of about 10% from between the share of families receiving assistance and the share of families living below the poverty line. In those localities with non-Haredi Jewish populations, the negative gap was close to 9%, and in Arab localities, the gap was close to 14% — that is, fewer families living below the poverty line in the Arab localities were eligible for food vouchers. The largest gap was found in Bedouin localities and was close to 28%. In contrast, in Haredi communities, the gap was positive at about 2% on average — that is, more Haredi families received food vouchers than the number of families in those municipalities living below the poverty line. According to the researchers, the top of the list of towns that are disadvantaged is Jerusalem, which received some 19,000 fewer food vouchers than the number it would have received according to poverty line indicators, while Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, and Beit Shemesh head the list of towns that received more vouchers than the number of families living below the poverty line.
The characteristics of the food voucher program raise fears that politicians used their power to increase their political support among the public
Clientelism is a phenomenon in which politicians use their power to distribute resources to gain political support. The phenomenon is known world-wide and is widespread primarily in developing countries. In Israel, it was common practice during the period of the large Aliyah after the State’s establishment, and in the past few decades it characterizes the operation of sectoral parties. In an international comparison, the level of clientelism in Israel today is similar to that in Italy and the United States, higher than what is common in welfare States like Germany and Sweden, and lower than the level in Hungary and Türkiye. The study findings raise fears that there is a trend towards a return to clientelism in Israel.
Prof. John Gal, Chair of the Taub Center Welfare Policy Program, said: “Clientelism is a well-known, world-wide phenomenon, and in Europe it is most common in non-liberal democracies. The study findings raise a fear that this phenomenon will persist and take root in the Israeli welfare state. While over the years the level of clientelism in Israel has declined, the examination of the food voucher program operated in 2021 raised fears of clientelism. As the study has shown, the program gave clear priority to individuals and families from population groups identified with the political party that initiated and led the program, and great effort was made to link between the food voucher program and the political figure who stood behind the program.”
“A program intended to benefit those living with food insecurity should most appropriately be led by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs under whose responsibility this falls. In addition, available data should be relied upon to ensure an efficient distribution of resources, and an intervention program should be constructed that offers a long-term solution rather than just a one-time response,” said the Director General of the Taub Center and previous Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Welfare, Mr. Nir Kaidar. “In our view, continuous financial assistance accompanied by professional support focusing on those families suffering from food insecurity is far more effective than the one-time distribution of food vouchers. They also have a greater chance of helping families rise above their current situation. If it is decided to renew the food voucher program as planned, from 2024 forward, the criteria for eligibility should be changed such that the population living below the poverty line and suffering from food insecurity receives the benefit.”
In the coming days, the food voucher program is slated to once again get underway, with a total funding of NIS 1 billion for 2023–2024. The Ministry of Interior plans on distributing the first pulse before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). In order to continue to address food insecurity in the future, the Taub Center suggests three possible alternatives: renewing the food voucher program with revisions that provide sufficient long-term food vouchers for the population that is clearly identified as suffering from nutrition insecurity; expanding the Food Security Initiative; or expanding the social security program for vulnerable populations. All of this should be done while maintaining a number of principles, among them, defining the goals of the program and the target population (families living below the poverty line suffering from financial distress or families suffering from food insecurity); determining the implementing agent (national government, local authority, or an external agency); and ensuring high uptake of the benefit.
The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute. The Center provides decision makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets and economic policy in order to impact the decision-making process in Israel and to advance the well-being of all Israelis.