Nothing is less popular than expressing support for the prime minister, regardless of the issue at hand. But there is one key matter for which Ehud Olmert deserves praise: child allowances.
Since becoming prime minister, Olmert has been under a great deal of pressure to increase these allowances. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai wants this more than anyone, and has even threatened to quit the coalition if the payments are not increased significantly. And without Shas, Olmert has no coalition.
Finance Minister Roni Bar-On also deserves praise. He has determinedly opposed raising the stipends, and in internal discussions at the treasury's budget department, he has been heard to say: "There will be no increase in child allowances - I will not lend a hand to it. They may have my head, but under me, it won't pass."
A discussion on this matter took place yesterday in a subcommittee of the socioeconomic cabinet, and Bar-On presented an uncompromising position. He said poverty cannot be reduced by the short-term cosmetic solution of welfare payments. He spoke in favor of investing in education and encouraging both husbands and wives to work - goals on which the government is spending billions of shekels. But Yishai was not impressed, insisting that the child allowances be increased substantially and immediately.
Yishai is worried by developments in ultra-Orthodox society. It turns out that the 2003 cuts in child allowances spurred more Haredim to get jobs, and there has even been a decline in the number of children per family. Yishai represents himself as a hero fighting the war on poverty, but he actually wants to perpetuate poverty by sedating the public with welfare benefits.
The lower the level of his voters' general education (science and English) and the more children they have, the poorer they will be, the harder it will be for them to find jobs, and therefore, the more dependent on him they will be to secure them benefits and grants from the government. Higher benefit payments perpetuate this dependence on community leaders - and the more children there are, the more future Shas voters there are. All told, a cynical and repulsive world.
Increasing the allowances would yield immediate results, because families would receive money. But it is like injecting a drug into one's vein - yes, it feels good at first, but after a few hours, it weakens the body. Real methods of fighting poverty are complex and take time, but they are the only ones that work. The poor must receive fishing rods and be taught to fish, not just to stand in a long government line to get their fish.
Take the Wisconsin plan, for instance. Yishai reduced it drastically, despite its success in getting the chronically unemployed back into the work force. That is because Yishai does not like dissatisfied people, the kind who are pressured to work and even given job training. These are people who, over the years, have become used to staying at home and collecting welfare. That is why they were angry at Yishai over being forced to work, and he hastened to give in. Now they are back at home, living off welfare - and loving Yishai.
There are other ways to encourage people to work, such as instituting a long school day to make it easier for both parents to work. But Yishai does not support that, because that would make the public school system better equipped to compete with Shas' private education system. Yishai also does not support increasing budgets for day-care centers, even though subsidized day care would allow both parents to go to work while their children are in an educational setting. Instead, he insists that all the money go to child allowances. True, they were recently increased by NIS 165 million, but that is not enough.
If Yishai really wanted to solve the poverty problem, he should have pressed for other measures rather than supporting an increase in child allowances. He should have lobbied for more job training, the replacement of foreign workers with Israeli ones and a negative income tax. Instead of opposing the Education Ministry's core curriculum, he should have been the first to bring science, math, history and English at the highest possible level to Shas' El Hamaayan system, in order to advance his community. But Yishai does not want education or work. He wants ignorant, weak, docile supporters who are dependent on him.
Yishai is looking only at the short term, at the upcoming elections. But he must understand that the secular donkey will not be able to carry an increasingly large Haredi community on its back forever if its members do not go out and work. The burden will be too heavy. And one day, the crisis, and the budget cuts, will arrive, as happened in 2003.
Olmert is a political corpse nowadays, paralyzed by a bribery investigation. But he is standing strong on child allowances, and for that he deserves support.
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