A Scandalous Law

In recent weeks, members of the United Torah Judaism Party have kept busy trying to decide who will have to relinquish his Knesset seat, to make way for Yisrael Eichler to run in the sixth position on the faction's list.

In recent weeks, members of the United Torah Judaism Party have kept busy trying to decide who will have to relinquish his Knesset seat, to make way for Yisrael Eichler to run in the sixth position on the faction's list. The logical candidate would be UTJ's No. 5 man, MK Shmuel Halpert. In a bid to keep his seat, Halpert's most logical defense would be the claim that he is responsible for United Torah Judaism's most significant gain during the current Knesset term: the Large Families Law.

Halpert's use of such a claim to hang on to his Knesset seat furnishes unmistakable proof that the large families law, which went into effect about a year ago, is not an example of bona fide social welfare legislation. It is a narrowly partisan law. Representatives from two minorities, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, joined forces in order to transfer state funds to the pockets of their constituencies; the actual economic circumstances of members of their constituencies doesn't matter.

A reminder: The Large Families Law increased state allocations for a family's fifth child (and any child thereafter) from NIS 600 to NIS 850 a month (a 40 percent increase). As a result of the law, state allocations for a fifth child (and any additional child) are five times higher than the monthly subsidies given for a family's first and second children, which are NIS 170 apiece. Allocations for a family with 10 children increased by NIS 1,500 thanks to the law, reaching a total of NIS 6,500 a month.

The law's implementation cost the state half a billion shekels, a sum which is almost three times more than what Shas' education network, Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani, receives each year. Quite a few jobs could have been created with the funds which have been allocated to implement the Large Families Law. Quite a few children could have stayed in school and received expanded instruction, had this money gone to support a long school day.

It is worth mentioning in this connection that a Haredi yeshiva student pays less than NIS 100 per month to the National Insurance Institute. In other words, the Haredim have made a lucrative swap with the government: A yeshiva man who has a large family pays NIS 100 a month, and receives up to 65 times that sum, along with health insurance for his entire family.

MK Halpert is fond of pointing out that the Large Families Law "helps 510,000 children who live under the poverty line." Though he relies on NII data from 1999, Halpert's claim has only a tenuous link to reality. In fact, the statistics show that this law is inefficient and wasteful, insofar as it is meant as a measure to help indigent families.

Out of 510,000 children in the country who live below the poverty line, only 205,000 of them belong to large families (of five or more children) that benefit from the law. About 60 percent of the country's poor children, some 305,000 youngsters, come from families that have no more than four children, and the new law discriminates against these families.

When the data are assessed in terms of families, not the total number of poor children, the results are still more disturbing. In Israel, 308,000 families lived under the poverty line in 1999. Out of this total, only 34,000 families (11 percent) benefit from the new law. Only one out of nine poor families is helped by the Large Family Law.

In 1999, some 161,000 families with children lived below the poverty line. Only one out of every five such families benefits from the law. Some 127,000 families that have from one to four children gain nothing from it.

Some 436,000 children who live in families that have five or more children gain from the law. The 205,000 children who live below the poverty line and benefit from the law constitute only 47 percent of the total. In other words, a majority of children who benefit from the law are not poor.

In contrast, the law is discriminatory toward 18 percent of immigrant families and 24 percent of the country's single parent families, which live below the poverty line and usually do not have five or more children.

Last week the Knesset considered three proposals to revoke the Large Families Law. MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who chairs the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, caused an uproar when he branded the ultra-Orthodox parasites. Yet it is hard to quarrel with this description, because the law is, in fact, parasitic. The Large Families Law is designed to enlarge state subsidies for families of yeshiva men who do not pay taxes. The law enables the Haredim to live at the expense of other citizens who carry the tax burden.

This is a law crafted to finance an ultra-Orthodox way of life based on evasion of military service obligations. The law supports large families that live on the edge of poverty, and it is the handiwork of politicians who exploit their clout to attain budget allocations from the state.

Were Halpert to be earnest about his claim that the law's aim is to help poor families, then he and his Haredi allies would incorporate an income level standard in the bill. It can be assumed that such an addition would put an end to current, justified efforts to repeal the law.

The unity government has a unique opportunity to suspend the law. The chance that Interior Minister Eli Yishai would agree to relinquish his portfolio, a position redolent of prestige and status, shortly before Aryeh Deri's anticipated prison release is negligible. All told, Yishai wants the unity government to continue; even more than the prime minister, he wants to defer national elections.

One wonders how the government will justify initiating new measures while failing to repeal the Large Families Law. So long as the government does not overturn this scandalous law, it is hard to grasp how it will justify to the public the adoption of any other measure.