The welfare system in the State of Israel would have collapsed during the first days of the war if it hadn’t been for the rapid response by the professional departments in the Ministry of Welfare, the impressive efforts of social workers in the public sector—mostly on a voluntary basis—and the extraordinary reaction of civil society organizations and local initiatives.
This collapse did not come as a surprise. After more than a decade of underbudgeting of the social welfare system in Israel (a comprehensive report by the Menomadin Foundation estimates that the shortfall is about NIS 6 billion per year); unfilled social worker positions, given that they are unwilling to provide services under their present employment conditions and salaries (according to the Taub Center, there were 786 unfilled social worker positions in Israel in 2022, many of them located in the periphery); the accelerated politicization of government systems, as reflected in appointments based on political connections rather then professional capabilities; and unrestrained attacks on professionals in the social welfare system, the collapse was only a matter of time. Apart from the social welfare system not being able to meet the needs of many of its one million users even before the war, there are now an additional 130 thousand evacuees that are in need of material and often psychological assistance, emotional support and help in reorganization in order to continue functioning. The professionals and nonprofit organizations that have been volunteering during the initial weeks of the war have provided critical support, particularly for those who were uprooted from their homes; however, there is a growing fatigue among volunteer organizations and their resources are dwindling. The government systems are beginning to ramp up and there are welcome initiatives by national, regional and local social welfare frameworks to coordinate between the various players, establish frameworks to meet the new needs and provide urgent responses to those in need of them.
However, the resources for these tasks are severely limited and too many tasks have been imposed on too few social workers. Social workers cannot deal with all of the problems of the evacuees in the hotels and at the same time devote enough time to the populations in the community which they normally are responsible for – children, the elderly, abused women and families and individuals in distress. It is unreasonable to expect that social workers within the Ministry of Welfare will provide direct assistance to the victims and also orchestrate the ministry’s systems. At the same time, the surplus of ministries dealing with social welfare issues (the Ministry for Social Equality, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women’s Rights and the Ministry of the Negev and the Galilee) not only results in a waste of scarce resource but also hinders activity in the field due to an unnecessary redundancy of systems, which are often run by individuals without the required expertise.
In view of the growing distress of many residents of the country—particularly those who have been uprooted from their homes, those who are unable to make a livelihood, those who suffer from physical or mental trauma and those whose distress has been exacerbated by the war—we can expect a sharp increase in social needs. In order that the state and local governments can play a significant role in social welfare—as is expected of them—the following measures are called for in the short run:
- The recruitment of social workers by providing a “wartime grant” to those joining the staffs of the social services departments throughout Israel, and primarily in the South and the North.
- Support for social workers who are already working in the welfare system by means of payment for overtime, strengthening of the guidance and support frameworks and a government promise to raise their wages and improve their employment conditions.
- Formulation of a new financial assistance program for all individuals and families who as a result of the war are in need of the social services departments.
- Expansion of the Ministry of Welfare’s food initiative which finances the purchase of food for those suffering from food insecurity.
- Creation of systems for coordinating the government and volunteer systems by means of roundtables, like the one recently established for nutritional insecurity.
These recommendations will require a large increase in the resources allocated to social welfare. In the first stage, the money intended to fund food stamps in 2024 (NIS 600 million) should be used to finance immediate needs and in addition the redundant “ministries of welfare” should immediately be closed and their budgets transferred to the Ministry of Welfare, thus freeing up a total of one billion shekels for the Ministry of Welfare.