MKs Scrap 'Wisconsin Plan'

Troubled welfare-to-work program sent to panel for overhaul.

Barring any last-minute changes, the welfare-to-work program will end today, after the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee yesterday decided to reformulate rather than extend it.

The committee refused a Finance Ministry request yesterday to extend the plan for an additional year, or even for three months. Even intervention by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the request of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, did not help.

"It's not a good plan, to say the least," committee chairman MK Haim Katz (Likud) said. "We heard grave complaints about it. The committee decided to bring the cabinet a new, worthy plan, preferably operated by the Employment Service rather than private companies."

Orot Leta'asuka, known popularly as the Wisconsin plan after a similar program introduced in the United States, was approved by the Knesset in January 2004. Its goal was to bring welfare recipients into the labor force in order to give them economic independence.

Private companies set up employment centers in Nazareth, Hadera, Jerusalem and Ashkelon to service 18,000 welfare recipients who stood to lose their benefits if they did not cooperate. The private firms undertook to reduce the welfare rolls by at least 35 percent in seven months.

During its implementation the plan came in for broad opposition in the Knesset, in view of the bonuses - estimated at hundreds of millions of shekels - and other payments given to the operators, including for disqualifying participants from receiving welfare benefits even if they failed to find work.

Critics claimed the private operators sent participants deliberately to unsuitable jobs in order to register them as "job refusers."

"People became pawns in the hands of private companies, which instead of teaching them skills and finding them proper work, took advantage of them," committee member MK Orli Levy (Yisrael Beiteinu) said.

"The Wisconsin experiment was a complete failure and the Knesset members must act to replace it with real help for job-seekers and allowance receivers," a joint statement released yesterday by several human rights groups stated.

'Human trafficking'

Each participant was provided with an individually tailored program, consisting of 30 to 40 hours a week, with the aim of learning vocational skills and eventually finding a suitable job.

Tali Shaul, 31, of Jerusalem, a twice-divorced mother of two sons, aged 6 and 8, was sent to the Wisconsin Plan a few years ago.

"What I saw there was human trafficking, plain and simple, especially in single mothers," she said last year. "They send you to inappropriate work. I begged to be taught a profession. I was told 'start with washing old people and move up from there.' My mental state started to deteriorate. I got eating disorders and backaches, which I still suffer from. The eating disorders enabled me to get an exemption from the Wisconsin plan and for the last two years I've been getting a disability allowance that is equal to minimum wage. I was lucky to get out," Shaul said.