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Unclaimed Social Benefits and Rights among People Living in Poverty Position paper: Rabbis for Human Rights Every person who lives in the state is entitled to receive basic social benefits and services in various facets of life including health, education, employment, housing and justice. However, occasionally it is difficult to access these benefits. This results in a loss of rights to those who, despite being entitled, do not succeed in making their claims. This failure to claim social benefits widens social inequality in the country. People living in poverty are faced with barriers that prevent the full exercise of their rights. The barriers are bureaucratic, legal, cultural, social, economic and linguistic. We should aspire to decrease inequality and increase access for all residents to their rights. Permanent and mobile governmentsponsored rights centers, each assisting weaker demographic groups in exercising their rights and providing services suited to the individual are an effective solution that would raise the rate of claimed social benefits in Israel. Rabbis for Human Rights has run the Rights Center in Hadera for people living in poverty since 2005. We assist the residents of Hadera, Wadi Ara and the surrounding areas in claiming the benefits to which they are entitled from state institutions (the National Insurance Institute, Ministry of Welfare, schools, etc.) and also from private organisations (such as communications companies). In that time we have accumulated extensive information about the difficulties people who live in poverty face in claiming their social rights. There are a number of reasons for the failure to claim social rights: •

Administrative reasons – Ambiguity and complexity of application procedures, drawn out wait times for processing requests, and disagreeable and disrespectful conduct by clerks. When V. was sued by the Broadcasting Authority for a debt for a period of time in which she did not have a television set at all, clerks from the Broadcasting Authority treated her with contempt and disrespect, while pre-emptively assuming that she owed a debt. In conversations between Rights Center staff and the Broadcasting Authority, we met with a similar treatment, as if we were helping her cheat the state (after it was determined that she was in the right, no one from the Broadcasting Authority thought to apologize to her for the treatment she received or to compensate her for the hardships she was caused). S. is

entitled to rental assistance, but when it came time to renew it she didn't manage to organise the necessary paperwork in time, and consequentially her assistance was terminated and she was unable to pay her rent. This is a very common scenario, as indicated by Ministry of Housing’s unused budget at the end of December 2013. An example of the difficulty arising from the cumbersome nature of the system: Why does a person need to file a request in order to receive negative income tax? His/her income is known to the state, and the list of those entitled to it is known to the Tax Authority. Why is it not provided automatically? Recommendation: The establishment of a government entity to be responsible for claiming benefits. The entity would operate rights centers to assist in dealing with the bureaucracy be responsible for recommending changes in practices to government and public bodies when it encounters recurring difficulties. •

The domino effect – There are people who are unable to navigate the bureaucracy in one area and as a result find themselves losing rights in many other areas. The conditioning of a right in one place upon determination of eligibility in another place actually causes the population living in poverty to lose rights. A. reports to the Israeli Employment Service in order to get income support benefits. She fails to report and does not manage to justify her absence to the bureaucracy. As a result, she will be denied her income support benefit for that month. But furthermore – this interruption in her consecutive income support benefits may make her ineligible for public housing. N. suffers from a number of medical problems, including nutrition absorption problems, but she has not succeeded in receiving recognition of her disability from the National Insurance Institute. Consequently she is not eligible for exemptions and discounts in payments for doctors, medications and tests. N. skips tests and medications which she cannot afford, which again prevent her from gaining recognition of her disability. Recommendation: The establishment of a special cases committee as part of the array of welfare services. This committee would have the authority to remove the preconditioning of various entitlements, and would operate according to the "results test", i.e. assessment based on the person's condition and difficulties, rather than whether or not they meet the conditions of eligibility.

Lack of information and difficulty in accessing information – Many people who live in poverty are not at all aware of their rights, or do not know how to exercise them, and therefore do not claim them. This is also true of the physically and mentally disabled population. As of today, there is no single entity in the state responsible for providing access to and claiming rights for people living in poverty. Thus many people do not have anyone to assist them in overcoming the difficulties involved in claiming benefits. It is not the role of welfare workers to claim the rights of those who seek their help, and they are not experts in the matter, and the overload that they are

burdened with prevents them from fulfilling even those tasks clearly defined within their job description. After people are made aware of their rights, they are more likely to claim them. From our experience as an organisation that operates rights centers assisting in exactly these areas, people who have succeeded in claiming what they deserve come back when they encounter further difficulties. Recommendation: Establishment of a government entity to be responsible for claiming benefits, to be entrusted with the distribution of information, providing access to the information and operating rights centers. •

Language barriers – When there is no one who speaks Spanish at a branch of the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption in Haifa, obviously the rights of a Spanish-speaking immigrant will not be realized, because s/he has no idea how to receive the relevant information. Many Amharic speakers are not aware of their rights for the same reason. G. is a woman who speaks only Spanish and is being assisted by a social worker who speaks only Hebrew. G. does not understand what her rights are and what she must do in order to claim them. When her son was taken from home for forced psychiatric care, G. did not understand what they were explaining to her in Hebrew, and turned to the rights center with the desperate cry: "They kidnapped my son." Clearly in such a situation, rights are not exercised. Recommendation: All government and public entities are to be obligated to provide translation services.

Legal barriers – "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly." (Leviticus 19:15). A lack of access to justice systems primarily affects those who live in poverty. Often people are not aware of their right to pro bono assistance from the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid or from the Israel Bar Association’s Schar Mitzvah program, and not every legal issue is included in the service – notably negotiations prior to a lawsuit or debt consolidation. Even after the application, the lawyers are burdened with such an overload that a long time passes until the person is interviewed and until a lawyer is appointed. Even after a lawyer is appointed, the service is not always accessible. A. applied to Legal Aid to appoint her a lawyer. She sent the forms, and when time passed without her receiving an answer, we helped her call the legal aid support center to clarify the matter. There she was told that there were forms missing from the materials that she sent. We helped her send the missing forms, and we called to verify that they had arrived. Again a great deal of time passed and no answer was received. A. called Legal Aid again, and again she was told that documents were missing, the same documents that were sent previously and that we verified had arrived. The same thing happened again, until we inquired in writing to legal aid. This kind of conduct limits access to the service to many population groups.

The geographic divide also poses a difficulty: when a person seeks to extradite the management of his/her request, s/he can physically report to the offices of Legal Aid throughout the country. However, these offices are located in big cities and not in the periphery. A person who lives in the periphery needs to travel to the regional center, which requires good health and the cost of transportation, a matter which has financial ramifications. Another financial obstacle is the costs of court fees, service fees, guarantees, etc. Recommendation: By making Legal Aid services accessible in the periphery, through cooperation with the legal centers which we will propose further on, it would be possible to provide public reception hours in additional regions throughout Israel. •

Cultural reasons – Among people living in poverty and weaker population groups in general, there are often cultural gaps resulting in a different perceptions of reality, lack of knowledge regarding benefits, and fear of demanding them. For people originally from Ethiopia, for instance, nonexercise of rights is especially rampant. It is almost unthinkable for them to claim rights from the state. Another example: H. came to Israel from Cuba. There, she said, basic government benefits were provided automatically, without her having to request them. At the beginning of her life in Israel, H. didn't know that she had to apply to demand her rights. Other people who live in poverty tell us: "They won't believe me anyway, why should I apply?" A lack of faith in the system is one of the characteristics of the population living in poverty. Recommendation: Rights centers are to be entrusted with bridging cultural gaps for the different population groups that they are to serve.

Stigma against allowance recipients – Due to negative stigmas, many people are deterred from requesting benefits allowed to specific groups as opposed to rights that are perceived as more“legitimate.”

Social reasons – People who live disconnected from society tend to claim their rights less than people with a social framework. One of the hardships for the homeless, for instance, is the lack of a supportive social network. Even people who grew up supported by welfare sponsorship, foster care, boarding schools, etc., find themselves, as adults, lacking the tools and support system to exercise their rights. Recommendation: The rights centers are able to serve as a base for making contact with these people and for building the necessary trust in order to claim the social rights that they are entitled to. Additional recommendation: Government investment in community organizing, based on the example of the rights-based community centers.

Local authorities and poor communities – Another aspect of claiming social benefits appears in the differences between the abilities of local authorities and groups to receive all that they are entitled to from government ministries. Often various rights and benefits are provided to populations which are financially able to match government support, capable of filling out application forms and meeting the various criteria required by the government ministries. There are differences between local authorities and groups with financial capability and those that do not have the capability of coming up with the required matching fund, or even filling out all the necessary application forms. Recommendation: Assess the abilities of all local authorities to claim rights and access government benefits; assist the authorities in claiming rights where necessary; and guide such assistance with feedback at the end of each period after the actual claim among various populations.

The failure to claim social rights harms the most basic needs of people who live in poverty and other marginalized groups in areas such as health, housing, income and education. In 2013, at the Rights Center in Hadera, we dealt with some one thousand inquiries on a range of matters: debts and execution, public housing, national insurance, employment issues, financial hardships, difficulty in dealing with state institutions, and family issues. With regard to many applicants, we found that they do not claim their rights, or that they are not aware of them at all. In recent years, in addition to receiving the public at the Rights Center, we have been performing outreach: once a week we go out to low-income areas and near major institutions to inform people how they can utilize our services. We also distribute leaflets on entitlements and rights. Today, the majority of applicants to the Center are people who received our leaflets this way. Our proposal is to establish permanent and mobile government-sponsored rights centers. Additionally, we propose obligating every authority to conduct rights claim feedback and to build programs with the goal of increasing claims. These rights centers would provide information and guidance until rights are claimed and provide access to the information to different population groups. The permanent rights centers would be located centrally in major cities and the periphery, and there would also be mobile rights centers equipped with computers and technology traveling to communities at set times (similar to the “Snifit” operated by the National Insurance Institute in Bedouin communities in the Negev). Both the permanent and mobile rights centers would operate at various hours (morning and afternoon) and would be adapted for assisting different population groups in terms of language and information distribution, etc. The rights centers would need to conduct outreach and reach various populations who are completely unaware that they have unclaimed rights.

Furthermore, the national network of rights centers must identify areas in which there are recurring difficulties, and then present recommendations for changes in the practices of government and public entities in these cases. Notably, there are cities that have established such rights centers in recent years, including Jerusalem, Haifa and Bat Yam. For further details: Rabbi Idit Lev, Mobile: 050-2110673 Office: 04-6222678 Fax: 153-4-6222678

Rhr position paper unclaimed social rights  

Rabbis for Human Rights position paper: Unclaimed Social Benefits and Rights among People Living in Poverty

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