The Legal 'Catch-22' That Keeps Israeli Welfare Recipients From Studying

Some 99 percent of Israelis on welfare due to their inability to work are forced to give up on college or risk losing their stipend, undermining any chance of finding gainful work.

Danielle Or, a single mother of three from Sderot who began studying while receiving welfare, has struggled financially since leaving a battered women’s shelter a decade ago.
Gil Eliahu

D., 45, began studying at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2014, after spending a decade on welfare without working. The Be’er Sheva native received a 50,000-shekel ($13,200) scholarship to study political science. “I was happy. I dreamed of finally finding a job and stopping welfare,” she told Haaretz last week.

A month after commencing her studies, D. received a letter from the National Insurance Institute, which informed her that her welfare would be cut off because she had started university.

The Income Support Law of 1980 automatically bars anyone pursuing university studies from eligibility. Denying welfare creates a trap: Someone seeking to expand their employability to avoid needing state support cannot do so because of their ineligibility for welfare, and they are liable to find themselves unable to earn money while studying.

Not only is the person in danger of losing welfare – worth 1,400-4,400 shekels per month – but also benefits like rent assistance, public transportation discounts, municipal tax breaks, and subsidized medicine and electricity, which total about 16,000 shekels a year.

D. said she freaked out when she got the letter. “I couldn’t allow myself to study and not to receive support. I would be left without money for food and medication. I had no choice but to drop out,” she said. She has been at home for the past two years, receiving welfare and taking care of her father. “Basically, the state told me that poor women like you don’t need to study,” she said. “Your fate is always to remain poor.”

Like D., few people give up welfare to study. Only 90 people out of 100,000 began studying at the expense of losing their NII income support eligibility in 2015, less than 0.1 percent. NII officials agree that the regulations prevent people from escaping the cycle of poverty and should be changed, but the path to reform is long and arduous.

MK Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu), chairperson of the Knesset lobby for students and higher education, submitted an amendment that would allow people to maintain income support eligibility for three years if they received it for 18 months prior to commending studies. Ben Ari explained that the amendment would pay for itself, because getting these people into the job market would release them from dependence on welfare.

“I have been helping young people who receive welfare to get out of the cycle of poverty by studying for a BA that would allow them to gain a profession and move ahead in their lives,” Ben Ari said. “The NII and Finance Ministry are cooperating with me on the issue.”

Officials from the treasury, NII and Council for Higher Education have discussed trying to change the situation without resorting to legislation. Treasury officials decided to launch a pilot project among 200 people, providing them with welfare while studying. The pilot only allows them to study professions with a demand in the job market.

Still, legislation hasn’t changed the situation for single mothers. Although the Knesset approved an amendment in 2008 allowing single mothers to study without losing welfare eligibility, only 15 such women out of 20,000 receiving welfare started university studies last year, according to statistics obtained by Haaretz.

The reason lies in the fact that those women are still legally obliged to report to the Employment Office to receive their support. There, they receive job offers that clash with their studies and, when they refuse, they lose their eligibility. Although the 2008 amendment empowered the finance minister and social affairs minister to implement regulations exempting women from the employment test, no one has signed off on the exemptions in the past eight years. Ben Ari’s amendment includes such regulations for single mothers. The treasury and Social Affairs Ministry did not respond to Haaretz’s inquiry on the matter.

Danielle Or, a single mother of three from Sderot who began studying while receiving welfare, has struggled financially since leaving a battered women’s shelter a decade ago.
Gil Eliahu

Danielle Or, a single mother of three from Sderot who has begun studying while receiving welfare, has struggled financially since leaving a battered women’s shelter a decade ago.

“I live solely off welfare. My ex doesn’t pay child support,” she said. “When I was accepted to BA studies in law, everyone around me said I was crazy because they’d deny me support. I start my studies this week. I dream of paying off my debts and opening a place to help women get out of shelters.” When her 18-month-old daughter turns 2, Or will have to try combining work and studies – or else stop studying.

“It’s a shame Israel doesn’t bother implementing the minimum needed to help a weak group improve its standing,” said Yedid CEO Ran Melamed, one of the leaders on this issue over the past decade.