Oops: Unemployment in Israel ‘leaps’ by 20% overnight

The Central Bureau of Statistics announced it is changing its criteria for calculating unemployment. On the new list: Arab communities. Off the list: IDF conscripts who are now considered “employed” . The result: A quantum leap of 20 percent. 

This isn’t even an April Fools joke. I wish it was. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) sheepishly announced  that the criteria it’s been using to calculate the unemployment ratio in Israel don’t match the ones used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which Israel insisted upon joining two years back. Now that the CBS intends to switch over to the OECD’s standards, Israel’s unemployment rate goes from 5.6 to 6.5 percent practically overnight. As Globes reported this morning (Hebrew), CBS announced as recently as 28 February Israel had 174,000 unemployed. Beginning Friday, Israel has 227,000. In its statement (.pdf), the bureau suggests that the overall trend of gently sloping unemployment stays largely true, but the overall unemployment ratio is much higher than admitted to begin with.

Does any of it have anything to do with racism and militarism? Why, I’m very glad you asked. Globes suggest that the bulk of the change has been caused by the addition of “some one hundred communities that were not included in earlier CBS surveys.” The paper speculates that these communities, which Psagot Investment House analyst Uri Grienfield tactfully describes as “smaller, more peripheral and with a tendency to lower levels of employment than the big cities” are largely Arab villages and towns. Such forgetfulness has been demonstrated by Israeli media often enough – I vividly recall poverty indexes on TV news that would omit the country’s poorest 10 communities, all of them Arab, from their ratings, year after year after year – but it’s the first time, to my memory, that a government institution admits to similar selective amnesia.

“If indeed they failed to include certain Arab localities, this throws into doubt past data collection on unemployment in Arab community by CBS, considering how carefully unemployment is regularly monitored among both the Arab and Haredi communities, both traditionally underemployed,” my colleague Dahlia tells me when I  consult her if the news were as bizarre as they seem . “In addition to civil society groups, the CBS itself tracks (.pdf) Arab unemployment levels. So it is hard to imagine how the CBS suddenly forgot about its own data.”

If this wasn’t enough, it seems the actual unemployment ratio is even higher, because the amended data lists all of the IDF – conscripts, NCOs and officers alike – as “employed.” Considering conscripts are paid something like NIS 350 ($95) a month and sustain themselves largely on army grub (=Israeli and American taxpayers money), on their parents’ income and on jobs that pay under-the-table, it seems they fall short of several economic aspects associated with employment’s role in an economy (giving vs. taking from public coffers and consumer spending power instantly come to mind).

While the CBS is keen to present this development as nothing out of the ordinary (they didn’t even hold a press conference, simply slipping the statement onto their website just before the weekend), few appear to be buying it. Psagot says it has updated its 2012 unemployment forecast for Israel  to 7.5 percent. A “senior financial source” in Jerusalem told Globes that the top financial administrators of the country were “stunned” by the news and that the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, is “asking for an explanation” of the change. As the paper notes, all this might help to explain why hundreds of thousands of Israelis went out to the streets last summer despite a rosy picture of the economy persistently painted by the government.