Report shows 1 in 6 Israelis living below poverty line

They are the official poor. And their number is growing, according to a report released Monday by Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai.

According to the figures, some 729,000 people, or 16.2 percent of the population, lived below the poverty line in 1997. This marks a 0.2 percent increase from the year before.

Israel's poverty line is set at about $4,500 annually for a single person, or about $12,900 for a family of five.

Although statistically the increase is "slight," the real story, say experts who follow these trends, is a considerable increase in poverty over the last decade.

According to Barbara Swirski, director of the Tel-Aviv based Adva Center for the Study of Israeli Society, the number of people living in poverty has increased by almost 50 percent since 1985, going from 11.4 percent of the population to 16.2 percent.

The poverty rate in the United States, she said, is about 13 percent.

"The long-term increase means that the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider," she said.

"For Israel, this means there will be less solidarity. What does someone in the top income bracket have in common with someone at the bottom anymore? That some people in the upper levels argue that it is necessary to lower the minimum wage shows that they have no contact at all with someone trying to raise a family on that type of income."