Israel’s Day of Independence – a day for thinking outside the box, for escaping fixed mindsets and letting the imagination spread it wings. Two and a half months have elapsed since elections that could potentially herald the first significant turnaround in national priorities since the last huge turnaround we experienced, in the 1970s. A small case in point is used here to illustrate what might be accomplished if we only allow ourselves the independence to think and the courage to change.
Child benefits were introduced in Israel to achieve two primary objectives: encouraging the birth of more babies and assisting children living in poverty. Each year, NIS 7 billion (close to $2 billion) in child allowances is distributed toward attaining these goals – though research studies have shown that the fertility incentives are effective primarily among poor Bedouin families in the south and poor Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. Is this what the policy’s composers had in mind when they wrote it?
What about the goal of aiding poor children? It is not obvious how much the NIS 175 or 263 (depending on the number of children) that a family receives per child each month (NIS 6 or 9 a day) actually contributes. It is possible to think of alternatives to this mode of assistance – which, by the way, also reflects a negative work incentive.
The time has come to redirect the NIS 7 billion that is currently being spent on child benefits. If the budgetary hole is so deep that Finance Minister Yair Lapid needs NIS 2 billion to help reduce the deficit – let him take the money. But the rest should not be left as diluted child benefits and should be funneled in an entirely different direction.
The finance minister should transfer the remaining NIS 5 billion to the education minister so that this money could provide daily hot lunches for children living in poor neighborhoods, in schools that provide education for a few more hours beyond noon each day, in schools that need actual lunchrooms like in normal countries – and under the specific immutable condition that these schools teach a full core curriculum with no rounding of corners or shortcuts.
This is how we will be able to ensure that children living in poverty will receive at least one hot meal per day – which is considerably more than what their parents could have bought them with the NIS 6-9 a day they currently receive as child benefits. As a side benefit, Israel will have taken its first steps toward giving these children a ladder for climbing above the poverty line as adults. This is a core treatment of poverty that is not just for the children. A longer school day would also enable many of their parents to find a job.
This is not rocket science. The same astronomical amounts we pay annually as benefits will be directed from this point forward toward those who really need it – and support for the present will be accompanied by the provision of tools and hope for the future.
So best wishes to all of us for a happy Independence Day, independence from benefits – to education.
Professor Dan Ben-David is executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and an economist at Tel Aviv University.
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