By Claude Giorno and Gabriel Machlica, Israel Desk, Economics Department
The Israeli economy is strong. The country is enjoying its 15th consecutive year of growth, with GDP increasing on average by 4.0% annually since 2003, i.e. faster than nearly any other OECD country. Unemployment is at historically low level, and the average standard of living is improving steadily. Rapid population growth, the rise in people with jobs, strong economic fundamentals, good economic policy settings and a dynamic high-tech sector are underpinning these impressive outcomes, which are expected to continue in the short term, according to the 2018 OECD Survey on Israel.
Today’s excellent outlook offers Israel a unique opportunity to prepare for the challenges of the future which require stronger social cohesion. Israeli society is indeed marked by large inequalities. Almost 18% of the population live in relative poverty (i.e. with a disposable income below 50% of the median), higher than the OECD average (12.5%) and any other advanced economy. This reflects large disparities between different communities. Around half of Israeli-Arabs and Haredim are poor and live separately from the rest of the population. They have different school systems, live mostly in different cities and do not serve in the army. This leads to poor education results followed by worse labour market outcomes, notably in terms of earnings (Table 1). Haredi men have a cultural preference to engage in full-time religious studies, rather than participate in the labour market, and avoid core subjects in their school careers. Furthermore, Haredi women can work only part-time because of their large families. The majority of Israeli-Arab women also do not participate in the labour market due to cultural preferences. The result is that most Haredi and Arab families have only one breadwinner, resulting in significant problems of poverty, notably among children.
Given the high fertility of Haredi women, the share of that community in the total population is predicted to triple in the next 45 to 50 years, with the total share of Israeli-Arabs and Haredim rising from one-third to one-half over this period (Figure 1). This will have a substantial impact on Israeli economic performance, given the poor labour market outcomes and low productivity of these disadvantaged groups.
In the absence of further progress in social cohesion and any further convergence of productivity and labour market outcomes of Haredim and Israeli-Arabs with the rest of the population, average Israeli incomes would fall to nearly 30% below the OECD average, almost double the current gap according to OECD estimates (Figure 2). However, if ambitious structural reforms are launched to further improve the Haredi and Israeli-Arabs’ (youth in particular) integration into society through better education and training, improved work incentives and more business-friendly environment, the gap in Israeli living standards with the OECD average could shrink below 10%.
Geva A. (2015), Demographic Changes and their Implications for Fiscal Aggregates in the Years of 2015-2059, http://www.mof.gov.il/ChiefEcon/EconomyAndResearch/ArticlesSet/Article_20150518.pdf