Do Not Collect Debts From Beneficiaries of Income Support
Creditors are not allowed to seize an Income Support Pension, since this pension is barely sufficient for survival. The only creditor exempt from this limitation is the one paying it: the National Insurance Institute. It’s time to cancel this exception.
Atty. Maskit Bendel and Sivan Tahel
G is a single mother to one child, living in a city in Israel’s periphery. She survives on the Income Support Pension, Children Pension, and rental assistance provided by the State. G has a debt with National Insurance Institute, since she accidentally received too high of an Income Support Pension, due to an error she made in her report. The National Insurance Institute seizes the debt from G at a 10% interest rate from the meager Income Support Pension she receives, which is already barely enough to support her family. After that, she is left with about 2,650 shekels, which are supposed to suffice for her and her son.
G is not alone in this struggle. We have recently worked on many cases of impoverished families who for one reason or another are indebted to the National Insurance Institute. In some cases, it is a very old debt, and other times the debt is due to amounts that were overpaid to the people in the past due to errors of the National Insurance Institute. In most cases, those indebted are not aware of the debt, and are made aware of it only after it has increased significantly, and exactly when they are in the hardest situation and need the help of the State. These families are barely surviving on pensions, and every shekel taken from their pensions endangers a deeper fall into poverty and great risk to their food security.
Along with the Civil Litigation Clinic at Haifa University, ACRI has been pushing an effort that aims to cease the norm of seizing National Insurance Institute debts from Income Support. According to the State itself, the rate of Income Support is the minimum needed to live in dignity. Anyone in the field knows, however, knows that in fact it is barely enough to survive. For example, a woman like G is supposed to be receiving 2,949 shekels per month. Now imagine that 264 shekels are taken from this amount, in addition to other charges such as Health Tax and National Insurance fees. In the end, she is left with an amount that is simply not enough for survival.
The National Insurance Institute Law guarantees the Institute discretion on whether to and how to seize debts from pension beneficiaries. The National Insurance Institute decided that it automatically seizes 10% for debts, if there should be any, and gives the option to appeal to a special committee and request the debt be lowered or the payment plan to be spread out differently. Although the majority of those indebted who have turned to us were not even aware of this option, the committee does not absolve every debt, if any, and its procedures take time.
While the National Insurance Institute, wearing the hat of a creditor, can seize debts from basic survival pensions like Income Support, no other creditor is permitted to do this, except for creditors seizing debts from fathers for child support, and even this can only be done by court order. The rest of the creditors are not permitted to seize even a shekel from an Income Support Pension. Even our salaries, if we become indebted, are protected from seizure by the National Insurance Institute, specifically because the State recognizes this amount as the amount necessary for living in dignity. The National Insurance Institute, acting as creditor as well as provider, is the only one who can touch the Income Support Pension.
Many times, we are asked whether in our opinion people should not be paying debts, and who is supposed to pay these debts - since National Insurance belongs to all of us. The answer is that the debts should be collected with the consent of the pension beneficiary, and at the rate they choose. As long as they cannot or do not want to have the debt paid out of the pension, the debt should be collected just like the debt of any other citizen: through the Enforcement and Collection Agency, and in accordance with the legal limitations placed on every creditor. Meaning it is forbidden to seize even a shekel from the Income Support Pension.
There is no logic to seizing from the Pension. How can these beneficiaries recover and lift their head above the water, if their debts are being collected in amounts they cannot manage?
Many years ago, in Israel and other countries, people in debt would be imprisoned. This approach has thankfully changed. As a state aspiring to protect and advance human rights, we infer that using predatory measures against people in debt not only disadvantages them and forces them to rely on the State again and again, it is also inhumane and immoral. Yes, debts should be paid. But we cannot bring a person down to their last piece of bread or to living on the street because of debt. The Income Support Pension is already so meager. It is clear to everyone that it must be increased. Until then, do not hurt the person who relies on it to barely survive.