The Stalag of Wisconsin

Does the State of Israel ride roughshod over its downtrodden? A serious academic study, the first of its kind, addresses that question.

The study, conducted over a year and a half by the Brookdale Institution, tracked the most aggressive (and controversial) program of its ilk that Israel ever instituted to fight poverty: the "Wisconsin" program.

You can't say the state wasn't ambitious with Wisconsin. It sent all the worst chronically unemployed at four sites to a two-year pilot.

Aged immigrants from Russia who'd believed they'd be paid state pensions from age 55; Ethiopians; Arab women who'd never left their village boundaries unescorted; the disabled, physically or mentally; all were forced to report to the "Wisconsin" centers every day, for hours, under threat of having their support cut off if they balked at joining the workforce.

What has the result been? Here are Brookdale's conclusions: 21% of the program participants improved their living standards; 13% found jobs; 8% found more work than they'd had before.

The math is easy. If 21% of the program participants improved their living standards, then 79% did not. Or, the plan is much more of a failure than it is a success.

Tortured truth

Opponents of the "Wisconsin" program, and they are legion, leaped on the findings with crows of oy. A 20% success rate at the price of physically and mentally abusing the other 80%! Only a torture chamber like the state of Israel could have come up with such a thing, they wailed.

But the reality is a whole lot more complicated.

No question about it, it's hard to take pride in a success rate of 21% - until you look at the comparative data.

The "Wisconsin" program managed to improve the lot of 21% of the participants. The Employment Service - Israel's traditional answer to joblessness - improved the lot of 5%.

Or, "Wisconsin" is four times more successful than the Employment Service.

Also, the people may consider the state to be indifferent to their plight. But the "Wisconsin" program is not an Israeli invention: similar programs operate throughout much of the west, including in the most advanced of social-democratic societies. They have data on the success rate too, and guess what, Israel's success rate is comparable, according to Brookdale. If anything, Israel's success rate is higher.

Elsewhere in the world, we learn, the success rate of Wisconsin-style programs in returning the chronically unemployed to the workforce are very low. Remember that the programs address the hardest-core of jobless, and elsewhere, people realize that Wisconsin is the last resort. There is no better solution.

The unemployable

One conclusion is that there are some people who simply can't be put to work. Over time, in other countries, they are exempted from the "Wisconsin" program. Some are given various rehabilitative jobs and some are simply supported by welfare.

These countries concluded that they must not stop trying to return the chronically unemployed to work. That is because the best rehabilitation they can be offered, and because countries aspire to lower their outlay on welfare to the minimum, that being the stipends to the truly, purely unemployable. 

In Israel too, after the two-year pilot, similar conclusions were reached.

The Brookdale study leads to the conclusion that certain groups should be exempted: Wisconsin won't work for them. Others should be held to lower standards, but stay in the program. Another conclusion is that the incentive for the program operators to return people to the workforce needs to be changed.

Implementing the study's conclusions can make the "Wisconsin" program work better. But first the conclusions must be adopted. Elsewhere in the world, managing to return 20% of the hard-core jobless to the workforce would be considered a success, but here, the Industry minister is fighting the program tooth and nail and firebrand parliamentarians have called it worse than a stalag during Stalin's time. Apparently these Knesset members do not deign to resort to the facts, the facts presented by Brookdale.