How Subsidized Israeli Day Care Allows ultra-Orthodox to Avoid Work

Mechanism intended to enlarge Israel’s workforce enables Haredi men to remain full-time students on the state’s dime.

Under pressure from the 2011 social protests and demands to reduce expenses for young families, the state last year expanded free, compulsory education to include 3- and 4-year-olds. But nobody stopped to ask what education the state is supposed to provide for these young children, or even whether preschool at these ages is actually just a daycare and not educational.

The question of the age at which day care ends and school begins is for now being addressed indirectly. Child care centers for children under the age of three, me’onot yom in Hebrew, are supervised by the Economy Ministry (formerly the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor). Their purpose, printed in large type on the circular stipulating the terms for subsidized day care, is “Encouraging the integration of mothers into the labor market.” There are no pretensions of providing an education for these little ones, reasonable enough since the alternative to day care is remaining at home, under parental supervision, and not a different educational framework. By providing subsidized child care, the state makes it possible for more mothers to work outside the home.

Mothers, not fathers. The assumption is that fathers go out to work in any event, while mothers need to arrange for child care in order to be able to do so. The circular devotes only a few words to the status of the father in establishing eligibility for subsidized day care. The assumption is that the father is either working or studying full-time, and the circular stipulates the type of studies that qualify.

These include teaching, nursing or other vocational training; Hebrew ulpan studies for new immigrants and undergraduate studies at an accredited academic institution (including the Open University, on condition that a degree is earned within the usual three-year time-frame of Israeli undergraduate studies). All these programs, in fact, are for a limited period of time, with the exception of one additional option listed in the circular: study at a kollel (yeshiva for married men).

Not job-market ready

In contrast to the other acceptable programs, study at a kollel neither prepares students to join the labor market nor are limited in time. Men can study there all their lives and, thanks to a tiny clause in the Economy Ministry’s circular, are eligible for subsidized day care for all their children despite the fact that the purpose of this subsidy is to encourage people to work, specifically mothers with young children - and in Haredi families the mothers do work. But because lawmakers could not conceive of a family in which the mother works and the father doesn’t (an arrangement that is exclusive to Haredim) they, too, are eligible for subsidized day care.

Haredi politicians insisted on a father’s kollel studies qualifying his children for subsidized day care. Thus, a mechanism intended to enlarge Israel’s work-force became a means to avoid work. In fact, subsidized day care seems to be the most critical factor enabling Haredi families to get by without a working father.

Let’s take as an example an average ultra-Orthodox family, with six children, a mother who works (let’s say she earns 8,000 shekels a month, or around $2,000), and a father with a kollel stipend (another 4,000 shekels). Day care would cost them about 500 shekels a month per child (700 shekels for an infant).

A family with more than one child in day care is eligible for an additional discount (100 shekels each for two children, 200 shekels each for three or more). This costs the government 1,730 shekels a month per child (2,273 shekels for an infant). So a Haredi family at this income level with two children in day care benedits from a subsidy of between 1,200 shekels and 1,600 shekels a month per child.

Our family of eight will therefore receive 200,000 shekels over the years in day care subsidies, while paying about 80,000 shekels out of pocket. In contrast, a middle-class family with two parents who work - and which, as a result, exceeds the maximum income to qualify for a state subsidy - will spend 144,000 shekels for day care for three children. A family of eight (six children) would pay 288,000 shekels for day care over the years – 3.5 times the cost to the Haredi family.

A 200,000-shekel subsidy for one family is, beyond doubt, an enormous benefit, presumably the state’s single biggest benefit to Haredi families, which is used for the opposite of its intended purpose.

Closing loophole

This loophole is set to start closing, beginning next year.

In March the cabinet approved a change to the eligibility requirements for subsidized day care. The father will be required to work as well as the mother, for a minimum number of hours that will increase gradually over the next four years. Day care fees for a family whose father does not work will rise for each child until, at the end of four years, the subsidy is withdrawn completely. Many ultra-Orthodox families will be hard-put to pay 2,000 shekels a month per child.

The hope is that this will encourage more Haredi fathers to join the work force. But an alternative scenario is giving government bureaucrats sleepless nights: Men could stay in the kollel, without working, while their wives stop working to stay home and look after the kids.

With this nightmare scenario in mind, the state is allowing itself the option of revising the eligibility rules for day care subsidies, and that is worrying. Haredi families choosing to live in poverty, with neither parent working, is no reason for the state to betray its principles.

Day care centers are provided by the state to help people to join the workforce, not to educate their children. As such, only children with two working parents should be admitted. Anyone who rejects this principle must pay the price.

The price is so steep that Haredi families will likely do whatever it takes to avoid paying it. But for this to happen the state must stick to its principles.

Haredi boys at a school in Jerusalem's Meah She'arim neighborhood.
Gil Cohen-Magen