A month ago the annual report of the National Insurance Institute on the "Extent of Poverty and Inequality in the Distribution of Income in the Economy"—or, by its familiar name, "The Poverty Report"—was published, with data for the year 2003. A few days before its publication, leaks about its incriminating findings led to a strong media reaction; following the publication the media were inundated with reactions, and the data of the report, which present the disgraceful state of all areas of poverty in Israel, appeared in black, threatening headlines on the front pages of the written and electronic press: "A Million and a Half Israelis Live below the Poverty Line. Increase in the Number of Poor Workers." (Haaretz, Nov. 24); "One in Every Four Children—is Poor" (Maariv, November 23); "The New Poor" (Yediot Aharonot, November 23); etc. The inside-page reports, the articles and the opinion columns expressed shock and concern, and "human interest stories" were presented down to the last detail—the social reality hiding behind the abstract figures in the report.
Even though Haggai Hitron rightly complained about the self-righteous and agitated handling of the issue by the media and asserted that this vocal demonstration of sympathy exempted the newsmen from holding a "serious public discussion" on the issue (Haaretz, November 24), his critics missed an important point: the survey in the media, despite its demagogic nature, presented a clear, if simplistic, stand of doubt and criticism about the economic policies of the Treasury, with its neo-liberal pre-conceptions, and about what was seen as the forced and destructive subordination of the Israeli economy to an imported model not attuned to the political conditions in which they must operate. Yediot Aharonot emphasized the destructive influence of the cuts in allocations on the low-income sector: "Etti, Mother of Seven from Jerusalem: 'Up until a few months ago, I supported myself with dignity, but the cut in allocations have destroyed me. Now I buy only bread and cheese, and have no money for heating" (November 23); Haaretz, in an excellent survey by Ruthie Sinai, came out against the claims of Netanyahu that employment—and for paltry wages at that—is the way to stave off poverty: "More and more Israelis are becoming poorer and poorer in recent years—not because they receive allotments... contrary to the claim of the Treasury, even work has not succeeded in raising the poor up out of their poverty" (November 24); and Maariv described the moral corruption and the dehumanization that poverty imposes on its victims: "In order to buy food for her children, A. decided to steal.
. . . 'I disgust myself, but I have no choice'" (Maariv, November 23). The survey was accompanied by chilling forecasts for an even more chilling future which emphasized at what seemed to be the refusal of the news editors to support the soothing version of the Treasury, according to which the wretchedness of so many is a necessary, even positive, side effect of the "recovery" and "growth" process that has not yet been felt but is decidedly real, and that will soon catch up to us if we only try hard enough.
So far so good. But it's not enough. The news discussion surrounding the poverty report tends to focus on the symptoms of poverty, and not on the structural reasons for its existence or the political economy that creates it. An analysis of this kind is the job and the responsibility of economic analysis, and has a natural place in the economic supplements that should serve as the forum for explaining the economic reality to the broader public. But it seems that the economic supplements haven't heard about this. They treated the news about the dimensions of poverty in Israel like a distant, unreliable rumor, or a piece of vicious gossip, and most simply chose to ignore it. It seems that—at least where the issue of poverty is concerned—the newspapers maintain an internal, secret division of labor, two hands not knowing what each one is doing: the news pages speak of poverty, and the economic supplements speak about capital; the news items shout and rant and argue about the efficiency and justice of Netanyahu's plan, and the economic sections—if silence and silencing mean agreement—simply support it.
As proof, a careful look at the editions for the same week of the three largest newspapers gives the impression that the economic section of Haaretz, the daily "Business" section of Maariv, and Yedioth Ahronoth's" "The Economy" and "Finance," as well as the economic sections of Ynet and nrg, were more interested in Bank HaPoalim's profit statement for the third quarter that was announced that same week, and in its influence on the personal fortune of Shari Arison. Everyone knew that, in order not to present the items at the same time, the bank had postponed the publication of its report on its astronomical profits by two days, but only one of the economic analysts bothered to mention that report's data in its survey of this [the poverty] report and to make a connection between them (Shlomi Sheffer, Nov. 25, Ynet). Other analysts who chose to mention the report, like Avraham Tal, tried to hint delicately that the hysteria surrounding the Poverty Report was exaggerated, that the data are not reliable and that the calculations were wrong. The language of suspicion and denial concerning the Poverty Report was prominent throughout the column: The information "leaked out or was leaked" to the media; it wasn't a "sharp increase" in the percentage of poor families, as was announced, but a "small increase;" the data of the report weren't "verified," and thus "there was room to suspect" that the poor were, in fact, hiding "inheritances and severance pay," apartments throughout Israel ("permanent assets"), not to mention large amounts of crops ("income in kind")—all unreported ("Comments on the Poverty Report," Haaretz, November 28). Even Sever Plotzker, in a column written a month and a half before the publication of the Report, accused the poor families of having various electronic items, so that they were not actually living in poverty according to the standard definition, i.e., "general lack of everything," and thus were not truly poor (Ynet, October 1). Nehemia Strassler took a different approach, and instead of doubting the poverty of the poor, his analysis was devoted almost entirely to a nostalgic glance at the glorious days before the Six Day War, when "Israel didn't have allocations to ensure minimum income or a minimum wage law. Most of the population went out every day to work, depending on themselves and not on the government." All this was spoiled by the "socially-minded," who in the 1970s forced the government to distribute allocations and stole the right to starve with dignity from the workers (Haaretz, November 23). Netanyahu couldn't have said it better. In fact, the only economic analyst who sounded the alarm about the worrying findings of the Report, and even claimed that the investigative method of examination used by the National Insurance Institute (which measures relative, not absolute, poverty) didn't expose the full extent of poverty, was Gideon Eshet (Ynet, September 21). His column on the day the Report was published, "Black Economy," in Yedioth Ahronoth, is an example of the kind of economic journalism that can provide the tools to confront the "realities" of the Treasury, and can make the "Finance" magazine relevant and valuable for the wider public, not only for the capitalists.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say, then, that for a long time the economic sections in the larger newspapers have maintained a partial autonomy from the news sections, both in content and in the stand taken. In fact, such a policy of separation fits, and even lends legitimization to, the economic ideology of the right, which reinforces the apparent separation between social and economic sectors, and creates a dialogue that separates economic policy and political and social issues. The economic sections deal with movements, trends and fluctuations in the capital market, and with the people who direct them or use them, but not with those for whom the market bubble bursts in their faces every day. The supplements, aimed at the interests of the business sector, its life style and the issues that interest them, don't bother speaking about poverty, even as the flip side of wealth. For them, the discussion of categories of wealth and poverty is anachronistic, and in fact is not their concern. When the journalistic perspective coincides with that of the market, the market decides the area of discussion—and poverty loses its position as a subject and becomes irrelevant. A tragicomic example that typifies the absurd position of poverty in a supplement that gives advice for investing wisely, is the insight that concluded a typical article entitled, "What to Do with the Money:" "The report on poverty, publicized this week, proves once again that those who cannot finish the month should not consider risking their last shekel in investing in the stock market (nrg, "The Economy," November 26).
This article was first published on issue 54 of The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here