As part of its ongoing efforts to fight poverty through policy change, last week SHATIL played a leading role in bringing together over two hundred citizen activists and dozens of Knesset members to discuss ways to ensure that the national budget addresses the real needs of Israel's people.
“We all did our army service, and our kids served; yet we’re left without food,” said one activist on Wednesday, July 3rd, to the assembled group of lawmakers and NGO representatives.
Over one third of Israeli children live in poverty, according to the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, and Israel has the highest poverty rate out of all OECD member nations. Proposed budget cuts to vital services would worsen this situation. For many social justice advocates, rising poverty and inequality represent a breakdown in social solidarity and a fundamental betrayal on the part of the government.
On Tuesday, July 2nd, the Forum to Combat Poverty, in which SHATIL plays an active role, hosted a Knesset conference to prevent the proposed cuts to child allowances. On Wednesday, the SHATIL-led Social Budget Forum hosted a similar conference on the broader social aspects of the budget.
These gatherings drew a diverse group of participants: Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, old and young. Some were seasoned NGO representatives, while others were new to activism. Some brought their children. Many spoke of personal experiences with poverty, adding a particular urgency to the fight to protect the vital government services that enable individuals and families to survive.
The gatherings provided citizens with a unique opportunity to speak directly to their representatives. Prominent Knesset members, including Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, attended one or both conferences. The second conference, moderated by MKs Gila Gamliel of Likud and Ilan Gilon of Meretz, drew a wide variety of Knesset Members from across the political spectrum, including both Coalition and opposition parties.
Many participants pointed out that the proposed budget cuts would particularly harm Israel's most vulnerable groups. For instance, the Coalition-supported 2.7 billion shekel cut to the child allowances program would push an additional 40,000 children below the poverty line.
Eddie Gedalof, director of Lod Community Advocacy, explained that this measure would hurt women."In many cases, government child allowances are the only portion of the family income that mothers directly control," he said. Thus, a reduction in the child allowances decreases not only a family's income, but a mother's financial independence as well.
Participants also discussed the current budget's inadequate response to Israel's housing crisis. While the Israeli population has tripled since the 1970s, the number of public housing units has not even doubled; there are currently 70,000 units, up from 40,000 forty years ago.
“If a child doesn’t have a home, he’ll likely end up in jail,” said Yoav Haas, a housing rights advocate who participated in the conference. “Israel has the resources to provide adequate housing to all of its citizens – it just doesn’t use them.”
These two conferences gained significant media attention; SHATIL organizers and other participant-activists were interviewed on several major radio and TV stations, raising public awareness of the proposed budget’s harmful impact on disadvantaged populations. This should, in turn, increase pressure on lawmakers to amend the budget to promote rather than harm social well-being.
The Knesset will hold a final vote on the budget on July 31st. Until then, SHATIL and the Social Budget Forum will continue to advocate for a socially just budget through facilitating direct conversations between citizens and Knesset Members as part of the "Hallway Advocacy" initiative; coordinating letter-writing campaigns; and continued media outreach.