This article examines various aspects of poverty in the haredi community, to help formulate policy aimed at reducing poverty and increasing well-being among haredim. The study extensively surveys the incidence of poverty in the haredi sector and its causes, and offers different perspectives on poverty, focusing on the haredi community’s viewpoint. The article also examines how this sector copes with poverty and the low level of income.
The relative poverty rate in Israel, according to the official relative index, stands at 21.7% and is the highest among OECD countries. Among the haredi population, which constitutes 11% of Israel’s population, the poverty rate is more than 50% and is one of the causes of the country’s high poverty rate. Moreover, poverty rates in the haredi community have increased over the years, with a rise from 38% in 1998 to between 50-60% in the last decade. As the data indicate, poverty in this population group is deepseated and ongoing.
The findings emerging from an econometric analysis using Logit regression show that the main causes of poverty in the haredi community are small number of breadwinners in the household, high number of children, and low level of education that is relevant to the labor market. These factors are influenced by core values of haredi society which engender different priorities than those of general society, such as choosing Torah study over other studies and work, and having larger families – as large as possible. These choices made by the haredi family increase its well-being, though at the expense of a proper income. Indeed, an examination of the general level of satisfaction with life among haredim indicates a high level of satisfaction, which is not dependent on level of income.
Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon often characterized not only by financial constraints but by poor health and lower investment in education, and is usually accompanied by negative social and psychological consequences. However, poverty in the haredi community, which is mostly poverty by choice, is not characterized by low levels of education and health and does not bring with it additional negative consequences.
In addition, the official poverty index does not necessarily reflect an inability to provide for basic needs, a low level of well-being, or the community’s perception of poverty. This is true in every population, but even more so when it comes to a closed community with unique characteristics – demographic, cultural, religious and so on – such as the haredi community. An examination of relative poverty in the haredi community, where the point of reference is the haredi community itself, shows that the poverty rate in the community is much lower than that calculated in comparison to society as a whole, and stands at 18.3% – only six percentage points higher than that of non-haredi Jewish society.
Moreover, the haredi community has several ways of coping with the low level of income: mutual assistance with money and goods, volunteerism and mutual aid, and interest-free loans. This is in addition to transfer payments received from the government as well as from private individuals and organizations in Israel and abroad.
In addition, the level of expenditure in haredi households is lower due to, among other things, a lower consumption of luxury goods, lower prices which reflect a different equilibrium between supply and demand, and collective buying at cheap prices.
In light of the different perspectives on poverty examined in this study, it is not surprising to find that, when factoring in individual preferences and communal coping strategies, the sense of poverty is not so high in the haredi community, and is similar to that of the non-haredi Jewish population.
The study’s findings indicate that the scope of poverty in the haredi community is much smaller than what emerges from the official poverty index. These findings raise a number of issues, notably the level of commitment and responsibility of the government and of society to address the issue of poverty in a community that has chosen such a way of life, on the one hand; and the State’s moral right to intervene in what might be termed a paternalistic fashion, in order to change the economic situation of a community that chose to live like this, on the other.
However, although many haredi households choose a life of economic restriction which results in poverty, this choice sometimes reflects a desire to meet the standards of the surrounding community and to belong to it, not necessarily a desire to live a life of poverty. Moreover, sometimes it is not a choice made independently, such as in the case of children.
The study shows that it is very important that the solutions to mitigate poverty in haredi society take into account the many facets of poverty in the community and its unique characteristics. Policy measures must be culturally oriented, as it is not possible to assist a population group in contravention of its belief system and culture.