How the economic crisis affects the special needs community

A man with special needs on a day trip to the Dead Sea meets a camel. (Source: Alei Siach)

On Saturday night, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with a panel of medical and economic experts to discuss next steps in managing the coronavirus pandemic and its financial fallout.

When asked how the government would handle a second wave of infections, Kahlon said, “The economy will not survive another lockdown. If, G-d forbid, there’s a second wave of infections, and we repeat the same steps we took with the first wave, the economy will totally collapse.”

The fact that Israel’s economy is in big trouble is no secret. Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in March, more than 1.5 million Israelis have been fired or placed on unpaid leave from their jobs, and the unemployment rate in the Jewish state has soared to an all-time high of 27.5 percent.

Across the globe, nearly every industry, from retail to manufacturing to hospitality, has taken serious losses during the crisis. But the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is acutely felt by the special needs community, in several ways.

Employment

Dr. Michelle Yin, an economist at the American Institutes for Research, wrote about how people with special needs and disabilities in the labor market are especially affected by the economic crisis. “During the 2008 recession, people with disabilities lost their jobs at higher rates than people without disabilities,” she says.

In the United States, employment levels recovered to pre-recession rates in 2012, but “people with disabilities were just starting to see employment rates return to previous levels in 2019. This will more than likely be the case again because of the types of jobs they hold and stereotyping by potential employers.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, 57 percent of adult Israelis with disabilities worked. We expect that those Israelis may have a tougher time getting back into the workforce than their counterparts. As Dr. Yin writes, “Some employers believe that people with disabilities are an ‘imperfect substitute’ for employees without disabilities—even if they have comparable education, skills, and abilities.”

Nonprofit organizations

Some people with special needs who are not in the labor force rely on support from nonprofits, which have been devastated by the economic and employment crises. When money is tight, one of the first things people cut back on is tzedakah, or giving to charity. Many nonprofits serving people with special needs depend heavily upon donations from the public, who are – understandably – unable to give at the moment.

A number of large foundations, especially those based in the United States, have shifted their funding strictly to relief for hard-hit Jewish communities or support for researchers focusing on cures and vaccines, and have significantly reduced their giving to nonprofits that are not directly managing the coronavirus crisis in a hands-on, medical sense.

Budget re-prioritization isn’t a phenomenon limited to private donors or foundations. The Israeli government has also been forced to make major adjustments in how it allocates funding. The 100 billion shekels in the economic rescue plan presented by the Ministry of Finance didn’t come out of thin air – those shekels came from different places in the government budget, including funds that had previously been set aside for nonprofits.

For many Israeli nonprofits that are partially funded by the government, major changes have occured, from slashed funding amounts to a complete freeze of monetary support. Most nonprofits in Israel function on a tight budget and the loss of even a few thousand shekels in funding can have a devastating impact on an organization.

Hope ahead

However, there are bright spots on the horizon. The Finance Ministry has dedicated billions of shekels to new vocational training programs, and are legally obligated to extend that training to reasonably accommodate people with special needs.

Moshe Kahlon has predicted that 90% of those laid off or fired during the crisis will return to work by the end of the year, and as salaries stabilize for many families, donations to charity will become a priority once again. Whether secular or religious, the importance of tzedakah from a spiritual and practical perspective is a fundamental aspect of Israeli culture, and I expect to see a return to charitable donations in the near future.

The Jewish people and the state of Israel have survived numerous perilous eras throughout our history. Judging by our past unlikely victories in adverse circumstances, there’s no reason to think we won’t be able to make it through these particularly challenging times.

As restrictions ease and Israelis return to work, cautious optimism is felt throughout the country. With one of the world’s lowest per capita death rates and a remarkably low number of new restrictions as people return to the public sphere, I am confident in our ability as a nation, including those of us living with special needs, to overcome the crisis.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.
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