A government-appointed committee recommends increasing disability allowances to 4,000 shekels a month ($1,112), in three stages, and correcting a series of little-known inconsistencies in the law governing these allowances. Those are among some 20 recommendations in the final report released by the committee, headed by Prof. Yaron Zelekha, former Finance Ministry accountant general.
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Among the findings of the committee, published here for the first time, is a rule that requires disabled women to prove a greater degree of incapacitation than what is demanded of disabled men, to be eligible for an allowance. The committee also found that married disabled men receive a larger stipend than those who are not married, and that the severely disabled are not entitled to legal assistance from the state, because their allowance is considered income.
In addition to correcting these distortions, the committee recommends a basic overhaul in the system of employment of the disabled, which currently “fines” them for working by deducting money from their allowance. Instead, disabled people who join the employment market will receive hundreds of shekels more each month if the committee’s recommendations are approved.
The committee recommends other forms of economic assistance, such as help with rent, increased transportation allowances and an increase in the allowances of disabled older adults.
The committee, whose members included representatives of the major organizations for the disabled in Israel, submitted its conclusions at the end of April to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, who approved them. On Wednesday they were presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided not to accept them immediately. Instead, he appointed another committee to examine the issues, headed by the chairman of the National Economic Council, Avi Simhon.
The new committee will make no major changes and will base its recommendations on those of Zelekha’s committee, according to sources. It is believed that Netanyahu appointed the second committee because he wants to take credit for increasing disability benefits rather than let Kahlon do so.
“It’s the prime minister’s right to examine the recommendations, and for the sake of the disabled I can only hope he’ll accept them quickly, considering that disability allowances have eroded over the past 15 years compared to the cost of living, and he alone bears responsibility as prime minister for nine years, and finance minister for two and a half years,” Zelekha said in response.
Beginning in the 1970s, disability allowances were pegged to the cost of living. But due to the implementation of an emergency economic program in 2002, disability benefits were not increased from 2002 to 2005, and then, from January 2006, were no longer pegged to the cost of living. Thus, the disability allowance that in 2003 was 2,161 shekels a month, is now only 2,342 shekels a month.
Given the erosion of the value of the benefits for the past 15 years, one of the major demands of the organizations representing the disabled was to prevent further erosion. Zelekha’s committee recommended that in the future the benefits be pegged to the cost of living plus 1 percent.
The committee also recommends changes that would provide incentives to work. Currently, if a person with disabilities earns more than 2,750 shekels a month, the National Insurance Institute cuts his or her benefits; if the person earns more than 7,000 shekels a month, they lose their benefits entirely. As a result, only 21 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to the 34 percent average in OECD member countries.
The committee recommends not deducting anything from the disability allowance of those earning up to the minimum wage. Gradual deductions in would be made for those earning above that.
On the other hand, the report recommends that tax exemptions for high earners who with disabilities be canceled. “It is unclear why the disabled who can work and even earn a high income should enjoy a huge tax exemption when thousands of disabled people are living under the poverty line and the state can’t find the money to help them,” the report states.
According to the current policy, men with disabilities who are married receive an addition of 1,172 shekels to their monthly allowance — something their unmarried counterparts are not entitled to. “I do not see a real economic reason that justifies this discrimination, especially if the partner is a man who can contribute to the household income. In fact, I see it as the other way around. The distress of an unmarried person is greater than that of a couple,” Zelekha said. But because this policy has been in force for so long, Zelekha recommends that the addition to the allowance of a married person with disabilities be reduced to 500 shekels a month.
Zelekha also recommends that the same addition be granted to women if they are married to a man with disabilities or themselves have disabilities. “Unfortunately, in the Israeli labor market there is discrimination against women. The only reason I find to favor the married couple over the single person with disabilities is to correct the discrimination, if only by a little, against women.”
Zelekha also recommends changing the current policy whereby a woman with disabilities who has not worked for two years must prove a greater degree of disability than a man with disabilities must show in order to be eligible for an allowance. Moreover, at present, women are not eligible for the additional allowance given to married couples when the man is disabled. She also has to prove that she can no longer do housework.
Advocacy organizations for the disabled said they opposed both the substance and the timetable of its final report.
The main complaints are that the allowance will not be raised to the level of the minimum wage, which is 5,000 shekels, and that the increases will only begin next year and not immediately.
“It can’t be that committee heads like Prof. Zelicha or Prof. Simhon or any other committee will macerate the demand of people with disabilities for an allowance equivalent to the minimum wage and right now,” said Koby Cohen chairman of the Disabled Action Headquarters. “We desperately need the Israeli government to make a courageous decision and show the public that we lived in an enlightened country that’s a light unto the nations and cares for its weak.”
Nevertheless, there was acknowledgment of the Zelicha committee’s achievements.
“We cannot ignore that the report in general brings great, even historic tidings in many parameters that haven’t been addressed in decades,” said Alex Friedman, chairman of the group A Disabled Person Isn’t Half a Person, who was involved in the committee’s work. “For the first time in 16 years there’s an official admission by the government that the disability allowance is too low and doesn’t allow allow for a minimal dignified living.”