Text size

The government wants to cut out of its 2003 budget National Insurance Institute allotments received by some 109,000 particularly poor and weak families, half of which are single-parent families. One out of ten families will lose the allotment entirely. The rest will lose about NIS 700 a month. Alimony paid by the NII to more than 10,000 women will be either cut or eliminated.

For some reason, only one allotment is immune from all this slashing. It's the guaranteed income payment to yeshiva students paid by the Religious Affairs Ministry, NIS 1,203 a month. There are many ways to look at this discrimination and each one is more outrageous than the next. It can be argued, for example, that allotments are being denied army veterans while those who dodge the draft won't be affected.

The ministry's guaranteed income program is called that - even though the ministry does not condition the allotment on any examination of the yeshiva student's income, and it is nothing more than an allowance that circumvents the usual NII guaranteed income payment.

The ministry program was established as part of coalition agreements 20 years ago, for a number of reasons. The main reason was that the guaranteed income law explicitly forbids payments to students and yeshiva students. Another reason is that to get a guaranteed income allotment through the NII, proof must be provided that the recipient made every effort to find work, in other words, prove that they tried to find work and failed. By definition, the yeshiva students dodge work as well as the army.

So, a way was found for the Religious Affairs Ministry to provide an allotment, in such a manner that the ministry does not take into consideration such extraneous matters as whether the recipient tried to find work. Attorney Gilad Barnea has gone to the High Court of Justice on the matter with petitions from Am Hofshi, a group that advocates separation of religion and state, as well as a number of student groups.

There are two main conditions for receiving an allocation from the Religious Affairs Ministry - the yeshiva student has to have at least three children and a non-working wife. Two other conditions are that the student not own a car and more than one apartment. But those conditions can be easily bypassed.

The result is that the allotments are in effect part of the third child allowance for the Haredim. Secular families get NIS 300 and a Haredi family gets NIS 1,500 for a third child. The Haredim are very offended when they are accused of bringing children into the world for profit. But if this allotment isn't profitable enough to encourage people to have a third child, it's not at all clear what profitability means.

Another characteristic of the allotment is that it encourages unemployment and keeps Haredi women out of the work force. Economic logic after all would suggest that allotments should be denied to those families where the wife can work and chooses not to do so. Fear of losing the allotment is one of the factors that makes it difficult for the yeshiva student to leave the yeshiva and go to work.

The number of married yeshiva students with three or more children who are now receiving the allotment has reached 9,700 and the annual cost is about NIS 15,000 per family. That's an astronomical NIS 140 million a year, nearly a tenth of the Religious Affairs Ministry budget.

It's no accident the ministry invests so much money in this allotment. It is a main element in the overall state benefits for married yeshiva students, who are the cornerstone of the Haredi school system. The basket of benefits in 2000 was NIS 7,800, net, for a family of three children in which the wife doesn't work. That's about NIS 11,500 gross, but allotments are tax free. A family with 10 children with a non-working mother gets about NIS 11,300, which is the equivalent of NIS 19,300.

As could have been expected, the number of yeshiva students with three or more children has been on the rise ever since the allotment was institutionalized. In 1995 some 7,500 families received it, and since then 30 percent more have been added to the rolls. No wonder Israel leads UN tables of non-working countries, with 16 percent of the working age population staying out of the labor force. This allotment is one of the direct causes of that. It's a production line for self-imposed poverty.

All this data only sharpens the question why the government is determined to cut, over and over again, the allotments and guaranteed income payments that go to the poor who did not choose to be poor, and doesn't cut back on the allotments for those who have chosen a life of poverty.

The minimum every tax-paying citizen should expect is that the Religious Affairs Ministry allotment be cut by the same 25 percent that has been cut from the child allowances of those families with two or more children. But that isn't enough. It is time to cut the exclusive and illogical connection between the allotment and the number of children, and to stop the insufferable situation in which an allotment encourages married yeshiva students to continue with their life in yeshiva just because it is profitable. One way to do so would be to add a condition making the allotment available only to those who have spent six years in the kollel yeshiva for married men. That way, people who leave the yeshiva in their 20s won't benefit from the allotment, and therefore won't have a difficult time giving it up.