More than 1.8 million Israelis lived in poverty last year, some 22% of the population, according to the National Insurance Institute Annual Poverty Report released on Wednesday.

Based on data gathered by the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 1,809,200 people – including 463,300 families and 842,300 children – living below the poverty line in 2016.

The overall poverty rate increased from 21.7% in 2015, while the number of families living in poverty decreased from 19.1% in 2015 to 18.6% in 2016, accounting for some 14,400 families.

Poverty among children increased from 30% in 2015 to 31.2% in 2016, while poverty among the elderly decreased to its lowest point in five years, to 16.9%.

According to the report’s author, Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, the deputy director-general for research and planning at the National Insurance Institute, the rise in poverty rates resulted from this year’s report including for the first time data on the Beduin population, which is characterized by high rates of poverty.

Without the inclusion of the Beduin population, Gottleib said, a decreasing trend in the poverty rate is seen. This was due mainly to the return of child allotments and an increase in the minimum wage, the report concluded.

It also found that the standard of living, in terms of disposable median income per capita, rose in real terms by 3.8% in 2016, as did the poverty line.

Individuals with monthly incomes of less than NIS 3,260 and couples earning less than NIS 5,216 per month are considered to be living below the poverty line, according to the report’s definitions, whereas a family of five must earn more than NIS 9,779 to be considered above the poverty line.

An index of the depth of poverty – that is, the gap between family income and the poverty line – decreased by some 4%, while the poverty severity index decreased by 3%.

Among ultra-Orthodox, the poverty rate increased from 44.6% in 2015 to 45.1% in 2016, accounting for 15% of poor families in Israel.

Among the Arab population, the poverty rate of families decreased from 53.3% in 2015 to 49.4% in 2016, accounting for 39% of poor families in Israel. The poverty rate among the Beduin population stood at some 58%.

Additionally, the poverty rate among single-parent families rose sharply, from 21.7% in 2015 to 26.1% in 2016, accounting for 33% of poor families in Israel.

When compared to other OECD countries, Israel still has the highest poverty rates of all developed countries, the report noted. In addition, although the GINI index of inequality showed slight improvement, the country continues to remain among those with the highest measure of inequality.

Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz said that “the government is investing many resources to remove families from the cycle of poverty, and it seems the main problem is the allocation of these resources.

“If we don’t act now to strengthen the resilience of the elderly citizen and to raise disability allotments in an egalitarian manner, we will continue to lag behind, and poverty rates in Israeli society will only worsen,” he said. “The benefits for the middle class are important, but we must understand that if we continue to neglect the weak links in society, fixing it in the future will cost the state more.”
Social welfare groups were quick to respond to the report, offering praise at the slight improvement in poverty levels (sans the Beduin statistics), but calling on the government to make more of a dedicated effort to eradicate poverty.

Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket Israel, said he was pleased to read about the moderate decline in poverty.

“However, I wonder if anyone has told this to the hundreds of thousands of children who come to school and do not have a hot meal or even a sandwich, since the Education Ministry’s catering program cares only for elementary school aged children,” he said. “The report again proves that thinking in Israel must change and that groundbreaking steps are needed at the national level to deal with the widespread poverty crisis in the country.”

Kroch said there are solutions available and slammed policy-makers, primarily Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, for “ignoring” the recommendations.

He called on the Knesset to “advance the enactment of the Food Donation Act to encourage the donation of surplus food, as well as establishing the budget for food rescue. From an economic, social and environmental perspective, food rescue is the optimal solution to the problem of poverty in Israel,” he said.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said that the findings provided “proof that government investment in helping society’s weakest pays off, but there is still a long way to go.”

He stressed the government needs to make eradicating poverty a “top priority” by investing in increased pensions and raising wages, as well as in education and job growth.

“It is the government’s responsibility to provide a safety net for our society’s weakest members,” he said.

The Forum for the Fight Against Poverty and Rabbis for Human Rights said the report showed that government intervention can help reduce poverty rates.

However, they said that the report is “worrisome” because it revealed that finding employment and earning a salary do not remove people from the poverty cycle.

“The State of Israel must establish a goal for minimizing poverty. It must match different plans to different populations, and especially those that are in the depths and severity of poverty,” they said.