Israel Pulse

Why Israel, not NGOs, must care for poor

Article Summary
Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz says that the work being done by associations, providing food and products to the poor, cannot replace the responsibility of the state toward its citizens.

Minister of Welfare and Social Services Haim Katz of the Likud Party was never worried about criticizing the chairman of his party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For quite a few years, Katz warned that the Likud’s lack of compassion about social issues could cost the party the government. Today, however, just half a year after being appointed minister for the first time, Katz has only compliments for Netanyahu.

In an interview with Al-Monitor just before Rosh Hashanah, Katz confides that when he sees the way that Netanyahu conducts discussions and debates in the Cabinet, the Knesset or the Forum of Likud Ministers, he can’t help being impressed with the prime minister’s leadership skills. “I’m not one of those people who is loose and easy with compliments, but I must say that in this term, the prime minister is acting like a leader and standing firm on his principles. I have never heard him like this before. He tells us, ‘This is what I want, because I am responsible for what happens.’ In general, the Netanyahu that we are seeing this term is a very different Netanyahu. This Netanyahu is a prime minister who tries to lead and who realizes that he bears ultimate responsibility for whatever happens. The way I see it, the Netanyahu of this term is a leader.”

As a politician, Katz has focused on social issues long before it became trendy. After the March 17 elections, he asked to be appointed minister of Welfare and Social Services even though it is not an especially attractive ministry, given its problems with budget and image. Even with the best intentions, the people heading the Ministry of Social Welfare are rarely able to instigate major changes. Katz took over the position after two particularly productive terms as chairman of the Knesset’s Labor and Social Welfare Committee. Under his leadership, it emerged as one of the Knesset’s most powerful and influential committees. He is now trying to repeat his successes in his new position as minister.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  After all these compliments for Netanyahu, can I assume that you are also happy with the state budget in general and, more particularly, with your ministry’s budget?

Katz:  I think that we should have budgeted more money for the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services to meet real needs that people have. We are right before the [Jewish] holidays and can see all the charities distributing food to the needy. The work that these organizations are doing is sacred, but the organizations themselves should be superfluous, because the state should have taken the responsibility for the needy. There are ways to do that too, such as reaching agreements between the government and the country’s major food retailers, so that every needy person who registers would receive a shopping card. That way, people in need could shop freely, take the food package and not look like they are poor, needy and pathetic. It really upsets me that poor people are not given an opportunity to preserve their dignity as human beings. Even worse, they are currently being made to stand in long lines and even get photographed in all their misery.

I have a gripe with a state that fails to ensure food security for all its citizens, no matter how much it costs. One thing that I did before the holidays was to issue instructions that 15 million shekels [$4 million] be reallocated immediately to help elderly citizens without family over the holidays. It is very important to me. With this budget, these people will be sent for a nine-day holiday at a resort, so that they will not be alone. They will be in a pleasant setting with food. This is, of course, a very specific program. I need another 150 million shekels [$40 million] to improve the situation of the needy on a more permanent basis. I don’t want to see elderly people dumpster diving for food. That won’t happen on my watch. My goal is to provide food security to everyone who needs it. People have to understand that in the State of Israel today, there are people with nothing to eat and no place to sleep. These people have no reason to wake up in the morning.

Al-Monitor:  Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to lower VAT by 1% as part of their plan to promote growth. Do you think that was the right thing to do?

Katz:  What can I say? In politics, we’re always looking for ratings. Instead of reducing the VAT by 1%, which costs us 5.5 billion shekels [$1.4 billion] per year, I think that the money could have been targeted more effectively. If I was finance minister, I would use that money to find an appropriate solution for young girls in distress or to create a program to encourage people living off social security allowances [guaranteeing minimum income] to find jobs. We should be giving these people fishing rods instead of fish. We should extricate them from the circle of poverty and bring them into the workforce.

Unfortunately, the state is doing the exact opposite, making it easier for them to just sit at home. I am all for thinking creatively, outside the box. This is one battle that I want to fight. The purpose is not just to have social security pay out less. It is much more important than that. People don’t realize it, but in another 20 years, social security will be paying out more money than it has in its budget. This will challenge the very foundations of the system and create an enormous deficit. We must act now to avoid reaching that point. We need to give people reasons to go to work. That begins with investing in children and in education.

Al-Monitor:  You are intimately familiar with issues pertaining to social welfare. What surprised you when you actually entered the ministry?

Katz:  What I found especially surprising was the salaries that the staff of the ministry actually gets. About 90% of the staff with the rank of manager and social worker receives income support to ensure that they earn a guaranteed minimum income. In other words, the people who are taking care of the needy today will be the needy tomorrow. I cannot understand how the State of Israel can create a situation in which people who have spent 40 years in the workforce retire with a pension of just 3,600 shekels [$930]. I will do everything I can to fix that.

Another thing that surprised me was the way that social security is perceived by the public. I knew it wasn’t good when I became minister, but when you take a closer look at it you see that its poor image is frequently unjustified. We have to improve the image of the social security system. It affects the lives of 4.5 million people in Israel. We have to see how we can improve our responses to the public and make an effort to provide positive answers to everyone who needs them.

Al-Monitor:  It is hard to succeed in the position of minister of welfare and social services. There isn’t much of a budget to work with, and your ability to influence policy on a macro level is limited. Weren’t you worried about that?

Katz:  I was chairman of the Labor and Social Welfare Committee for many years and have had many legislative achievements and successes. Give me another year in the ministry and judge for yourself. The first thing that has already happened is that the ministry’s budget grew considerably. It now stands at 6 billion shekels [$1.5 billion]. That is 1.5 billion shekels [$388 million] more than in the previous budget. This is a huge achievement, because the budget was usually grown by about 350 million shekels per year [$90 million]. It is true that the ministry still receives too little. We should have gotten 3 billion shekels more [$776 million], but it’s a start. I have no idea how long I will be in this post. It could be for a year, half a year or the full four years. That is why I don’t plan to waste a single minute and why I’ve been asking for monthly plans. I don’t have any plans that extend over multiple years, because I want to know what we do every month. I want to know what we actually get paid to do, what our targets are and how many people we help.

Al-Monitor:  You attacked [ultra-Orthodox] Minister of the Economy Aryeh Deri for ordering the Israeli pavilion at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam to shut down for the Sabbath. Are you concerned that the religious status quo is threatened?

Katz:  No. This is a very specific issue. Nevertheless, it really is insane to be closing a gadget and communications exhibit in the Netherlands. This is an important exhibition, which takes place every year. There are 18 Israeli companies represented there. If the problem is that the hostesses working there are from the Export Institute [namely that Jewish staff of a public institute works on the Sabbath], they can bring in Dutch hostesses to replace them. On the other hand, closing an exhibition after so much planning and investment, with so many people depending on it, makes no sense at all. Deri made a mistake.

Al-Monitor:  You are well known for your finely honed political instincts. How long will this government last?

Katz:  I really hope that this government completes its term. Even though the coalition has only 61 members, I am very pleased by how it is operating. The overall feeling is that there isn’t much of an opposition in place. The opposition may be shouting and screaming, but they don’t have any achievements yet. Meanwhile, we have established that in the moment of truth, the coalition is cohesive and united.

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Found in: welfare, poverty, non-governmental aid agencies, likud party, knesset, food, employment, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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