The COVID-19 period saw Israel’s social expenditure reach a peak of more than 20% of GDP. In 2021, it was still larger than it was prior to the pandemic’s outbreak, but has since significantly dropped, especially in areas of social security and housing. Developments in social policy over the past year indicate progress in areas dealing with individuals with disabilities and senior citizens, but the growing tendency to reduce social expenditure generates concern over growth in poverty rates and inequality in Israeli society. Taub Center researchers Prof. John Gal, Shavit Madhala, and Ori Oberman caution that if this trend continues, the social welfare state will find it increasingly difficult to deal with the social hardships that characterized Israeli society prior to the COVID-19 pandemic
Reducing social expenditure increases poverty levels and deepens inequality
Israel’s 2021 social expenditure totaled NIS 297 billion, constituting 59% of the country’s budget (not including debt repayments). Expenditure on social security, which served as the main tool for dealing with the economic side of the COVID-19 crisis, lessened in 2021 by some NIS 10 billion compared to the previous year, whereas expenditure on health grew in 2020 by about NIS 21 billion and in 2021 by about NIS 2 billion. Expenditure on social welfare, which includes social services but not social benefits, lessened by some NIS 2 billion relative to the previous year. Expenditure on housing for 2021 dropped by some NIS 1 billion relative to 2020, totaling about NIS 4 billion.
Poverty and inequality in Israel are very high compared to other welfare states. Arab and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) households are extremely vulnerable to the risk of poverty. Taub Center researchers found that families in these two constitute about 45% of the families living below the poverty line, which is almost double their portion in the overall population: Haredi families comprise some 7.4% of the total population but 12.7% of the families living in poverty, whereas Arab families constitute 32% of the population classified as poor, yet account for only 17.4% of Israel’s general population.
A relaxing of conditions for assistance to senior citizens and expanding the scope of assistance
The number of senior citizens entitled to nursing assistance has considerably increased in recent years: 176,000 in 2018; 197,000 in 2019; 240,000 in 2020; and some 273,000 in 2021. Midway through 2022 the number had already reached 301,000, representing an increase of 71% since 2018.
Taub Center researchers ascribe this increase in recipients of nursing allowances to changes created by reforms in the field of nursing insurance, including examination of most allowance claims based on medical documents and a personal interview, and payment of the allowance directly to the claimants rather than through service in-kind. The growth in the number of nursing allowance recipients reflects not only growth in the elderly population, say the researchers, it also reflects changes in policy and how senior citizens of impaired functioning are assisted.
Another significant change in the social security system in recent years is the increase in income supplements to recipients of a senior citizen pension and survivors’ pensions whose incomes are low. The study’s findings show that the sum of allowances paid in the first half of 2022 grew by almost 70% relative to the amount paid in the same period during the previous year. This growth does not derive from any significant change in the number of benefit recipients, but, rather, from an increase in the actual amount of the allowance.
Dramatic change in the law on welfare services for individuals with disabilities
Legislation of the Social Services Law for People with Disabilities indicates a dramatic change towards this population, say Taub Center researchers, defining it as “the most important legislation in the field of social services in 2022.” If fully implemented, this law is set to significantly reduce the number of individuals with disabilities living in facilities outside the community and greatly increase individual independent living through the provision of a personal budget and the freedom to choose community services suited to their needs, thus encouraging personal development and integration into the larger society.
Social workers are leaving the profession despite efforts to improve their status
The new collective agreement signed at the end of May 2022 was meant to promote changes in salaries of employees in the field of social work. The agreement includes an increase in starting salary to NIS 8,500 per month and an increase in the salaries of all social workers by 5%–20%. Another important clause in the agreement relates to increased salaries for social workers who are not filling managerial positions; wishing to ensure that their salaries also increase over the span of their careers, the agreement determines that the salary calculation will also give greater weight to components of specialization, education, and experience in a range of roles. The collective agreement’s expansion order, ensuring that social workers who are not government or local authority employees will also be included in the agreement, becomes effective in January 2023. Yet despite the agreement, it seems that many social workers continue leaving the profession, whether due to heavy workloads, an absence of personal security following violence by service users, or an erosion of the profession’s public status.
Data support the claim that certain parts of the social services system have improved with the passing of the COVID-19 crisis, notes Prof. John Gal, but other areas have fallen back into the old problematic patterns and it is unclear whether there is any willingness to adopt the necessary steps for coping with them more effectively than in the past.