Child Welfare Doesn't Benefit Society

One of Shas' unique characteristics is that it has no set platform, requiring it to find a new platform or gimmick for every election campaign. Aryeh Deri, for instance, used amulets as the focus of the 1996 campaign and his alleged innocence as the focus of the 1999 campaign. Shas has been saying for a while that elections are upon us. That's why the child benefit payments have been pulled out from storage suddenly and turned into a sacred principle. Shas officials think a social-minded campaign with child benefit payments as its centerpiece will make them popular with their voters, and it's tough to argue with that. What could be unpopular about a platform that promises voters an extra several hundred, or even several thousand, shekels a month? And if it doesn't go to their voters, it will go to the children or the parents of their voters.

A reminder: In 2002, while the Halpert Law was in effect, child benefit payments for a family of 10 children, which is fairly common in the ultra-Orthodox sector, was set at NIS 6,500 a month net, worth about NIS 9,000 gross. For the sake of comparison, the average salary is now NIS 7,800 a month gross. In other words: This was a work evasion payment. When someone with a job decided at that time to bring a child into the world, he naturally decided to pay for the child's upbringing as well. When an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student decided to bring a child into the world, he also decided that the person with a job should pay for it.

How was such an insane agreement reached? Very simple. For the first and second children (in other words, the ones for whom secular parents also receive a benefit payment), the family received NIS 170. For the fifth child and above (in other words, the ones for which ultra-Orthodox and Arab families are the primary recipients of the benefit payments), the family received NIS 850 times five. Now the allotment for a family with 10 children has been brought down to a much more reasonable amount of NIS 2,000 to NIS 3,000, depending on how many of the children were born after June 2003. Every child born after that date receives a flat rate of NIS 150. Thanks to the reform put in place by former finance ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom, we have come very close to having equitable and fair benefit payments. And that is precisely what Minister Eli Yishai wants to change.

It's important to remember that child benefit payments do not prevent poverty. They encourage childbearing in families of little means, and thereby encouraging poverty. Over the last few years, the ultra-Orthodox have repeatedly said that - in contrast to the Arab population, which has seen a drastic reduction in births in the wake of the cutbacks in benefits - it doesn't work that way with them. But in the last few months, two separate statistical reports have been released showing that it does actually work that way for them: less welfare money, fewer children. There has been a dramatic reduction in fertility rates in the new ultra-Orthodox cities, from nine children per woman to eight.

This means that child benefit payments are not a way of helping society; the opposite is true. When Yishai refuses an offer to receive significant funding in the form of social services and persists in his demand that the benefit payments be increased, it means one thing only: Yishai wants to cultivate poverty, not help the poor. He is not interested in getting Shas voters out of their distress. He is interested in leaving them there and increasing their numbers.

The matter of child benefits is very important to the future of the country, so we can expect the leaders of all the major parties to explain their positions on it. One can certainly expect Netanyahu to promise, even before the elections, that he will not sell his achievements regarding child benefit payments in exchange for Shas' entry into the coalition. The Labor Party and Kadima can also be expected to commit, regardless of whether there are elections, to not being partners in a coalition that sells off the child welfare accomplishment.

Yishai became the leader of Shas in 1999. Deri bequeathed him the "Just Not Shas" backlash and the Barak government's decision that Shas would not manage the Interior Ministry portfolio. In those first few years, Yishai was careful to moderate his demands, in an effort to put the genie of Shas hatred back in the bottle. In the last Knesset term, he appeared to have gotten over that.

Yishai is considered to be a leader who knows what's going on in the streets, but nonetheless it seems that he doesn't spend enough time with people who aren't strong Shas supporters. Otherwise, he would have known that for a long time now, child welfare payments have not been considered a social issue, but a benefit geared solely at ultra-Orthodox families. Therefore, when Shas puts the child payments at the center of its election campaign, it will not be interpreted as concern for the poor, but as a return of ultra-Orthodox extortion, just like in the joyous Halpert days.

Yishai should remember that raising the child welfare benefits from the dead is quite likely to resurrect the Shinui party or lead the anti-Haredi party to reinvent itself in another form. He would also do well to prepare himself for another round of protests sounding the call of "Just Not Shas."