“The Times They Are a-Changin,’ ” wrote Bob Dylan in his unforgettable song in 1964, and this is an apt description of the Southern District of Israel, which covers most of the Negev desert and the Arava Valley (where Eilat is located). Some would say it is for the better, while others would disagree.
The population of the Southern District is over 1.3 million – about 80% Jewish and the rest Arab (mostly Muslim) and others (immigrants not classified as Jews). Most of them are within the aim of periodic terrorist rockets from Gaza.
It is the largest district in Israel, with an area is 14,185 square kilometers. Its district capital is Beersheba and most-populated city Ashdod; there are also Beersheba’s suburban cities of Omer, Lehavim and Meitar, development towns Sderot, Ofakim and Netivot, and seven Beduin cities plus numerous Beduin settlements unrecognized by the Israeli government because they just sprouted and grew without state licensing.
The latter are a timely matter, as the new coalition-in-the-making includes the Arab Ra’am party, whose MKS are demanding recognition of these encampments, improved infrastructure and intense law enforcement in all Israeli Muslim towns and cities where illegal weapons and violence have been rampant.
Thus a just-released report entitled “A Sociodemographic Profile of the South,” written by Prof. Alex Weinreb – research director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Research in Jerusalem and associate professor of the sociology department and director of the Health and Society Program at the University of Texas in Austin – is very timely.
The study mapped out residents of the South by population group, type of settlement, household structure and more. The study finds that the population of the South, particularly the Arab population, has been growing at a faster rate than the rest of the country and that positive migration to the South now largely offsets negative migration from the region.
In addition, the share of those with an academic degree in the South is rising and educational inequality between Jews and Arabs is rapidly declining. The study also finds that in general, residents of the South are more satisfied with their economic situation than Israelis who live in other regions of the country and are less likely to leave the region.
However, the residents are dissatisfied with the state of local infrastructure, including enough hospital beds and high-level health services. There are also gaps in education and employment between the Southern District and other parts of the country.
Israel’s Southern District part of a strategic plan formulated by the Israeli government that led to the investment of many resources in its development in recent decades – relocating military bases and improving transportation and higher-education infrastructure.
In 2005, the national strategic plan for the development of the Negev established a number of goals to be implemented by 2015, including increasing the population of the South, increasing the number of employed persons, reducing the gap in average per capita income relative to other parts of the country and increasing the share of students in higher education. Most of these larger goals were achieved.
Relocating military bases to the Southern District has been a key instrument for developing the region, Weinreb wrote, as it has both encouraged the migration of workers and families with high social capital to the South and necessitated developing and upgrading infrastructure.
Transportation infrastructure has also developed substantially, improving mobility between southern localities and the rest of the country, and an international airport has even been opened in the district north of Eilat.
Investment in higher education in the South has yielded a particularly high return, resulting in the opening of additional institutions and study tracks and has led to an increase of about 58% in the number of undergraduate students in the South – an increase about seven percent higher than the national average. The budget allocated for this purpose has also increased and in 2019-2020 the Committee for Planning and Budgeting increased the budget for higher education institutions in the South by 75%.
The district’s population grew from 890,000 people in 2000 to more than 1.3 million in 2019, at a rate of almost two percent per year and similar to the national average until 2015, after which the annual growth rate in the South was even higher than the national average.
The population increase was disproportionately in the Arab sector, which grew at an especially high rate of almost six percent per year between 2005 and 2010, and by close to four percent per year after 2010, while the Jewish population grew by less than two percent per year. The population group defined as “other” accounts for about 6.5% of the total population in the South, and its growth rate is higher than in any other district in the country. The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population constitutes about 10% of the total population in the South, close to the national average, and in certain places, this sector is growing at a faster rate than others.
Weinreb found that the age structure of the Jewish population in the South is similar to that of the general population at most ages, yet the number of southern residents ages 55 and over is disproportionately high. The Arab population, on the other hand, is very young – 44% are under the age of 25, compared to 27% of Jews in the South and 28% in the national population.
In recent years, the growth rate of the Arab population in the South ages 20 to 29 has been about six percent, compared with about one percent among Jews. This has great significance for the region, as this growing group of young Arabs integrates into the higher education system and the labor market. The growth rate of those ages 45 to 64 is also considerably higher among Arabs – over seven percent, compared to about one percent among Jews and others.
Another matter of great significance in the region is migration. The Southern District stands out in its patterns of internal migration in Israel. Between 2000 and 2019 an average of 30,000 Israelis moved to the South each year – a higher number than in any other district except Tel Aviv/center. At the same time, an average of over 32,000 people a year left the South, such that the net migration from the South was negative. Over the years there has been a notable decline in the number of people leaving the South, alongside a significant increase in those migrating to the South, and the ratio of incoming and outgoing migration today is approaching 1. Most of this change can be traced to the Jewish population. International immigration has also had an effect and, in 2019, immigrants arriving in the 2005 to 2019 period accounted for about 5% of the total Southern District population. Most of these recent immigrants (82%) are from the former Soviet Union, almost six percent are from France and close to 12% are from Ethiopia.
The Southern District is also unique in terms of fertility rates – this is the only district in which fertility rates among Arabs (more than five per women) exceed the rates among Jews (three). However, Arab fertility levels in the South are lower than they were in the past; 20 years ago, the fertility rate among Arabs in the South was over nine children per woman, compared to about four in the rest of the Arab population in the country and less than three among Jews. If recent trends continue, the fertility rate of Arab women in the South is expected to drop to under three children per woman within a decade due to higher education and their desire for careers. That said, high fertility levels in the past will continue to have an impact over the next two decades, sharply increasing the number of people entering the labor and housing markets in the South.
It is not only that net levels of incoming and outgoing migration in the South are lower than in the rest of the country, the educational profile of those who migrate to and from the South is also different. The probability of a 20-39-year-old man whose two parents are academically educated moving to and from the South is low compared to other regions in the country: only a 10% likelihood of moving to the South and a 13% likelihood of leaving the South for another district, compared to a 25% probability of migrating between other districts. In contrast, the probability of migrating to the South is higher among those whose parents are less educated, which points to the South as a destination for 1st generation university-educated migrants.
The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) Social Survey of 2018 shows that the respondents who indicate that they do not intend to move in the coming years are mainly those ages 35 and over, married people, parents, and those with lower education levels.
In an analysis of satisfaction with life, residents of the South report higher economic satisfaction compared to other districts (except the Judea/Samaria district). The only category in which residents of the South had lower satisfaction than average was in that of local infrastructure – roads, public transportation, the cleanliness and availability of parks, and the quality of housing.
In terms of the housing market, the South has witnessed trends similar to those experienced nationwide of rising real estate prices and an increase in apartment sizes. The relative proximity of residential-concentrated areas in the South to the center of the country, improvements in transportation, and an increase in the prevalence of remote work have expanded the residential radius within which commuting is feasible. The real estate market has remained more stable in the South than in other districts throughout the coronavirus crisis and, in 2020, real estate transactions declined in all districts except the Southern District.
“The findings indicate a notable increase in the quality of life in the Southern District,” said Weinreb. “We are seeing above-average general and economic satisfaction, a willingness among potential buyers to purchase apartments even during the coronavirus crisis which affected the whole country, and despite the perception of relatively high crime levels in the Southern District.”
The Southern District has long been characterized as having a relatively low supply of high-skilled workers, which may have weakened the incentive for employers in prestigious industries to invest in quality jobs. In addition, the relative lack of these types of employment prospects may also have reduced incentives for residents of the region to acquire high-level skills and stay put (directly, or by reducing the presence of role models). In this regard, the data are encouraging and indicate an increase in education and skills: about 40% of Jewish residents of the South ages 30 to 44, at the peak of working age, had an academic degree in 2017 (compared to 23% in 2000), similar to the rate among “others.”
Among Muslims of the same age group, the share of academic degree holders was very low (5%) until 2011, but between then and 2017 has risen sharply to 20%. From these data it can be concluded that there has been an increase in the level of human capital in the South and a decrease in educational inequality between Jews and Arabs. The rate at which inequality is declining is faster in the South than in other districts in the country.
About 16.5% of those employed in the South work in high-paying occupations – a higher percentage than the national average, which stands at nearly 15%. The probability of southern residents being employed in high-end manufacturing is 76% higher than the national average, while the probability of working in computer programming or research and development is only 60% of the national average. An examination by sector and religion shows that women from the “others” group are twice as likely to be employed in a high-paying job in high-end manufacturing than Jewish women, and both Muslim men and women have a lower probability of being employed in lucrative industries. Employment rates among Haredi men and women in lucrative sectors is very low.
“Overall, the population in the South seems to be more satisfied, and there are successes in various areas such as an increase in the share of people with higher education and a decrease in the education gap between Jews and Arabs, an increase in real estate transactions despite the coronavirus crisis, and bringing a concentration of high-end manufacturing into the South. It is clear that investment in the South has borne fruits and that it is worthwhile to continue investing in the region,” concluded Weinreb.
Taub Center president Prof. Avi Weiss, commented: “Investments in the South are yielding returns both for the residents of the South and for the country as a whole, and there is great potential for further social and economic development in this region. For example, it is possible to continue developing the high-tech and manufacturing industries in the South and to expand the workforce the region so desperately needs.”