At the beginning of the month, the Supreme Court discussed petitions against the food voucher program run by the Ministry of the Interior. It may be recalled that in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government distributed food vouchers to eligible families according to criteria set by the Ministry of the Interior. As part of the State Budget for 2023–2024, it was decided to reactivate the program at a cost of about NIS 1 billion. According to the plan, food vouchers worth about NIS 400 million would be distributed to those in need in 2023 and another NIS 600 million in 2024. According to the petitioners (The Movement for Quality Government in Israel and Hidush for Religious Freedom and Equality), the criteria for the distribution of food vouchers is not equitable and gives preference to particular populations, and in particular to the Haredi population. The petition of the Movement for Quality Government quoted widely from the recent Taub Center research findings (in Hebrew) published last May.
The full study (in Hebrew) was published earlier this month, and it examines the efficiency of the food voucher program as it was implemented in 2021 during the COVID crisis. The study highlights the program’s biases and proposes alternatives should the decision be made to run the program again.
About 16% of families in Israel suffer from food insecurity and 21% live under the poverty line, rates that are higher than in most welfare states. The budget of the program implemented in 2021 by the Ministry of the Interior was about NIS 700 million. The food vouchers were distributed in three phases. The first phase was about a week before Passover and the 24th Knesset elections. The amount of the voucher was determined by the number of household members: in each phase, NIS 300 was distributed to an eligible individual and his/her spouse and NIS 225 for each additional household member, up to a maximum of NIS 2400. The local authorities were assigned the task of creating a database of eligible families and the responsibility for publicizing the program in order to ensure its uptake. The eligible families were identified according to criteria set by the Ministry: a resident eligible for at least a 70% discount on municipal taxes due to low income; an elderly resident who receives an income supplement and is eligible for a 100% discount on municipal taxes; or a household whose monthly income does not exceed the amount set by the Ministry. The income test was set such that the marginal income per capita for a family of up to four was much lower than the poverty line (poverty was defined more strictly) and for families of six or more it was higher (poverty was defined less strictly). In other words, a clear preference was given to larger families.
The study carried out by the Taub Center found an average negative gap on the national level of about 10% between the proportion of families who received the assistance and the proportion of families that live under the poverty line. In cities with a predominantly non-Haredi Jewish population, the negative gap is close to 9% and in Arab towns it is close to 14% – in other words, fewer families living under the poverty line were eligible to receive the food vouchers. The largest gap was in the Bedouin towns where it was almost 28%. In contrast, the gap was positive in Haredi cities – almost 2% on average. In other words, more Haredi families received food vouchers than the number of families living under the poverty line.
At the head of the list of “underserved” cities was Jerusalem, which received 19,000 fewer food vouchers than it would have received according to the share of families living under the poverty line, while Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit, and Beit Shemesh headed the list of local authorities that received more vouchers than the number of families living under the poverty line.
One of the concerns emerging from the study is that the characteristics of the program reflect clientelism, a phenomenon in which politicians provide benefits to specific groups in the population in exchange for political support. An examination of the criteria for distribution, as set by the Ministry of the Interior, shows a clear preference for individuals and families who are identified politically with the party whose leader initiated the program. In order to avoid such biased preferences and to provide a comprehensive and long-term solution to the problem of food insecurity, the Taub Center recommends a number of possible alternatives: renewal of the food voucher program in an improved format, such that it provides sufficient food vouchers over time and to the population that is clearly identified as suffering from food insecurity; the broadening of the National Food Initiative established by the Ministry of Welfare in 2017; and the expansion of the social security programs for vulnerable populations, and in particular, income security, income security benefits, and general disability benefits.
As a result of the public criticism of the program, the government decided to include additional groups within the 2023–2024 program: those eligible for income supplements or income security, alimony recipients, and Holocaust survivors in need. Nonetheless, the value of the vouchers for members of these groups is less than that of the vouchers received by those eligible under the criteria for the program implemented during the COVID pandemic. As a result, and also because of the timing of the discussion (which was held a few days prior to the Jewish New Year), the Supreme Court ruled that this year the vouchers would be distributed, but that the criteria should be reexamined before distribution next year.