And This Isn't Swinish Capitalism?

There was a time when it was customary to test how close politicians were to the reality of the voters. Now, nobody asks them, because nobody suspects that they even know the answer.

There was a time when it was customary to ask politicians how much a basic loaf of bread cost, to test how close they were to the reality of the voters. Now, nobody asks them, because nobody suspects that they even know the answer, or know the difficult reality that is the lot of those for whom a basic loaf of bread is a central element of their nutrition. If they knew, they would not have loaned a hand to raise the price of bread this week.

There is nobody who is supposed to be more aware of the importance of the issue than the Labor Party, and especially the Francophile at its head, Shimon Peres. The argument is not over the 25 extra agora it will not cost to buy basic dark and white bread, even though that turns into a significant sum on a monthly basis for a family with a lot of children and little money. This is a principle that by order of the French government, for example, the baguette's price has not been allowed to rise. In Paris they now that raising the rice of bread is a red line, a symbol of the regime harming its citizens. In Israel, they don't care.

The readiness of Peres and his party colleagues in the government to approve the price hike is a reflection of an inconceivable insensitivity that makes a mockery of the plan they are promoting to wipe out poverty, and their threats to abandon the government if their demands are not met to increase the budgets aimed at the weaker strata. Peres jumped on the poverty bandwagon a month ago, after even Prime Minister and Social Affairs Minister Ariel Sharon - who is not known for an abundance of social sensitivity - understood there was no choice but to deal with the hot potato in the form of 1.5 million people who live under the poverty line and ordered acting finance minister Ehud Olmert to deliver a plan to reduce the dimensions of poverty.

The person who last year lashed out at then finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leading a policy of "swinish capitalism" is now presenting Olmert and Sharon a plan - formulated with Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog - that would not have embarrassed the ideologues of Shinui. Peres said then that the result of the government policy was 6,000 millionaires and 6 million beggars. Now he proposes a program that highlights granting generous benefits to employers so they take in new workers and employ them according to the labor laws. That means the employers, some of whom are presumably among the 6,000 millionaires, will get money from the government to employ people at the minimum wage, NIS 3,335 a month. A real revolution.

Peres takes pride that he based his plan on president Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s. That might explain why some of the proposals in the Peres plan are similar to those that turned America into a country where the inequality between rich and poor is the greatest in the developing world. For example, he is proposing to privatize the government centers that provide vocational training to the unemployed and to impose the Wisconsin Plan - controversial even among Republicans in the U.S. - on the disabled, to make them go to work.

Treasury officials can rub their hands in glee. Their happiness will know no boundaries if they read the explanatory, introductory text written by Peres and Herzog: "The policy of allotments did not prove itself, and in many cases the system led to perpetuating poverty and increasing income gaps."

In other words, according to Pres, poverty is not caused by low levels of education and low pay, the failure to enforce labor laws, importing hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to lower the cost of labor and raise the standard of living for the rich and middle class, or the absorption of a million immigrants, many of whom cannot work because of their age or lack of skills. Peres is also ignoring that the allotments were the only instrument that helped keep the poor above water. If not for the welfare payments, the poverty rate would now be 40 percent higher.

In recent weeks, Peres' spokesmen have been issuing frequent messages about him meeting with Olmert and Sharon to discuss his plan and the additional budgets he is seeking. But moving those budgets around from one line to another will not help the poor. What is needed is a change in the basic attitudes of Peres and his friends. As long as they think that the solution to the problem of poverty is to be found through the employers, as long as they don't demand raising the minimum wage and canceling the expensive tax benefits that go to the wealthy, as long as they don't understand that the effect of the increased cost of bread on the poor - the bottom 20th percent spends three times on bread than the upper 20th percent - they bring no tidings.