Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet today with Justice Minister and Shinui Party Chairman Yosef Lapid to discuss economic decrees old and new: a planned cut in child allowances for the first three children, the decision to raise university tuition fees and the reduction in demobilization grants for soldiers.
If they reach an agreement, Shinui will be the big winner. It will be able to portray itself as the party that risked everything to defend the secular - even though Netanyahu and his Likud Party do not exactly hate the secular, the students or the soldiers. But that, apparently, is the law in politics: Big parties are required to demonstrate responsibility and cut the budget, while small parties can defend their constituents and extort "special allocations," thereby earning electoral points.
For the last 20 years, the ultra-Orthodox have succeeded in dividing Israeli families into two groups: those with three or fewer children and those with four or more. Every time there was a budget crunch, the treasury would cut the allowances for the first, second and third child, but Shas and Agudath Yisrael always made sure that, at the same time, allowances for the fourth child onward were increased.
This process reached its peak with the Halpert Law, which (with the Likud's support) took effect in 2001. This law raised the allowance for the fifth child onward to NIS 855 a month, five times the allowance for the first child (NIS 171 a month).
The injury to secular families, who usually have one to three children, was severe. Not only are these families that work, that carry the economy on their backs, that serve in the army, that pay mortgages, but over the years, the tax burden on these families has risen steadily in order to finance (among other things) the allowances to the ultra-Orthodox, who average eight to 10 children per family.
Two years later, the Halpert Law was repealed. The current government recently decided to equalize the allowances, so that parents would receive NIS 144 a month for every child. This was the most significant expression of the political revolution that had taken place: Shinui instead of Shas. But it dealt a serious blow to Haredi families. To give these families time to adjust, it was decided that the allowances would be reduced gradually, over a six-year period ending in 2009. The hope was that during this time, more and more Haredi families would join the work force and thereby improve their economic situation.
Now, the treasury wants to turn back the clock and reinstate the distinction between secular and ultra-Orthodox families. True, the cut applies to all families, and is only supposed to remain in effect for two years - but in Israel, the temporary always becomes permanent.
If this cut takes effect (and let us hope it will not), it will mainly hurt secular families - middle-class families that work, pay income tax and mortgages and whose children serve in the army. They will receive less for their children, and will thus be able to give them less, as well.
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