Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with his new economy mister, Arye Dery, are preparing to undo one of the major achievements of the previous Netanyahu government in coaxing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox into the job market.
The two plan to ask the cabinet to urgently approve a proposal that would reverse the requirement that families qualifying for subsidized day care have two working parents. The reversal was one of the coalition terms of Dery’s Shas party, which represents ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle East and North African origin.
After the new requirement was gradually introduced last year, the number of working Haredi fathers with children in day care rose by an estimated 70%, as did day care registrations in general.
The government has been trying to get more ultra-Orthodox men to join the labor force and forsake continuing to study religious texts at kollels (yeshivas for married men) well into adulthood. Israel’s economy badly needs Haredim, whose labor force participation rate is very low even as their share of the population rises, to work in order to ensure the economy continues growing.
Coaxing Haredi families into having two breadwinners is also an important part of lifting the community out of poverty. The National Insurance Institute estimates that 24% of families with a single earner are under the poverty line, while only 6% of those with two earners are, even if one of them is working only part-time.
In response to a query by TheMarker, the Economy Ministry discounted the importance of the reversal.
“Bringing Haredi men into the job market involves a correct and comprehensive mix of tools which will be employed in the year to come, not only by subsidizing day care, which is only one tool of many,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Economy Ministry said the number of fathers with children in subsidized day care who said they were studying at a kollel dropped 36% to about 11,500, from 18,000 the year before. The ministry, however, admitted it couldn’t verify that fathers who said they were not at a kollel were in fact working.
Day care centers are under the authority of the Economy Ministry, rather than the Education Ministry, because they are seen as a means first and foremost of enabling mothers to hold jobs. In the past, it was assumed that fathers were working – as is the norm in the non-Haredi world – and so no requirement was set for paternal employment.
But in the Haredi world the norm is the opposite. While husbands are expected to study, wives are usually the breadwinners. And because Haredi families tend to have many children and are poor, they were more likely to qualify for subsidized day care than families where both parents work – a policy that stood in sharp contradiction to the government’s labor policy.
Over the years, subsidized day care became one of the chief ways Haredi families could afford to let men study at kollels. The average ultra-Orthodox family of six children, for instance, stood to save some 2,000 shekels ($522) a month in child care costs; the loss of the subsidy this year forced many men into the labor market.
The work requirement was being introduced gradually so that in the first year 2014-15, a father was required to work just 10 hours a week to be entitled to the aid. In 2018, he would have been required to hold a full-time job.
When the program first went into effect last September, policy makers were gratified to find that it didn’t lead to a decline in the number of Haredi children in day care; in fact, the number grew to 30,700 from 28,900 the year before. They had feared that the work requirement might cause Haredi mothers to quit their jobs and stay home with their children rather than force their husbands to work.
Meanwhile, the number of Haredi fathers reporting that they worked at least 10 hours a week rose to 17,400, from 10,200 the year before.
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