Off Wisconsin

Not every bad idea from America needs to be imported to Israel.

Don't mourn the cancellation of the "Wisconsin Plan" welfare-to-work program. Like most coercive efforts at social engineering, Wisconsin - which obligated participants to attend job-training centers 30-40 hours per week in order to retain their unemployment benefits - trampled as many people as it helped. Even among the unemployed, the program was especially tough on our most vulnerable populations - Arab citizens (65 percent of the participants ), Ethiopian immigrants, and the poorest corners of Mizrahi communities endured the bulk of the pain, with Arab communities perhaps hit hardest. The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee's decision last week not to renew or expand the "Lights to Employment" program, as it is called in Israel, corrects a historic blunder and should be seen as a victory for Israeli civil society.

From Sawt el-Amel/The Laborer's Voice, which led the fight in Nazareth, to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, the Community Advocacy organization, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and others - NGOs representing groups across our social spectrum came together to end the suffering. Many of these organizations, it should be noted, are also supported by the unjustly maligned New Israel Fund.

Not every bad idea from America needs to be imported to Israel. Wisconsin embodied two particularly destructive trends: that of the government shirking its responsibility to its weakest citizens through privatization of essential services, and that of instituting a financial motive for program operators that invited abuse.

The state hired private companies to knock citizens off the unemployment rolls, paying them per head. Participants had no power and little recourse when case managers were incompetent or unscrupulous; any complaint would put their benefits at risk. Reports of "employers" involved in the "job-training" component in the field exploiting participants for free labor were not uncommon, and resentment was widespread about the requirement that participants be locked in training centers like naughty children all week. Little consideration was given to participants' health problems, or to the disruption caused to Arab communities, which lack preschools and after-school programs, when mothers and grandmothers were "sentenced" to spend their days at the Wisconsin center instead of taking care of their children or grandchildren.

Some of the most extreme abuses had been corrected since the introduction of "Lights to Employment" in 2005. For example, center staff stopped sending elderly participants to do physical labor, and ultimately candidates over age 45 were completely exempt.

New allegations surfaced as recently as six weeks ago, when an investigative report on Channel 2 showed participants at the Wisconsin center in Nazareth apparently being encouraged to produce phony pay slips to artificially inflate the number of those dropped from the unemployment rolls. The motivation of Agam Mehalev, the company managing the program in Nazareth, is clear: It was paid for each person removed from the welfare rolls, but from the participants' point of view, if the charges are true, it would suggest that they were willing to sacrifice desperately needed benefits to avoid having to take part in the program.

Unemployment can only be tackled by creating new jobs and by job training. Job creation requires either large-scale investment in Intel-sized projects; smart investment in new industrial zones serving Arab communities as well as Jewish ones; and more modest investment in small businesses and micro-enterprises (which can target people with minimal education and resources ). New businesses need mentoring and support services to shepherd novices through the birth pangs of new ventures.

The Israeli brain trust behind Wisconsin mistakenly equated questionable claims of multi-generational dependency on welfare in America, with citizens at the margins of Israeli society who face a glaring lack of job opportunities. Locking Arab women in a training center all week won't help them find work if there is no work to be had.

Job training where no jobs exist is wasted motion and only increases frustration: expectations are raised and then dashed when job opportunities don't materialize. Job training must be voluntary, realistic and include a matching program which prepares people for openings that actually exist and brings candidates together with employers.

There are already small-scale models in the field in Israel tackling pieces of the unemployment puzzle, led by government, NGOs, corporate leaders and partnerships among them. It would be worthwhile to check which justify replication and expansion around the country.

Consider Kav Mashve, a coalition of employers led by Dov Lautman, Dr. Irit Keynan and the Manufacturers Association of Israel, which places Arab candidates in businesses, with an emphasis on the private sector; Olim Together, which matches employers with Ethiopian college graduates. The group Women Against Violence has launched a job-matching Web site for Arab women. The KIEDF Sulam Israeli Arab Loan Fund, which provides loans to small businesses in Arab communities that cannot secure loans from banks, has a remarkably low default rate. Shatil's Project Wealth aims to create employment through local sustainable economic development.

What these programs have in common is that they are voluntary, rather than coercive; supportive, rather than abusive; and that they treat participants like adults, rather than children who need to be disciplined.

There are rumblings that our prime minister wants to revive the "Lights to Employment" program in a modified form, but this import from America's dairy lands has already soured. Now that Wisconsin is dead, maybe we can get serious about tackling unemployment through job creation and suitable training.


Don Futterman is the program director, Israel, of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation working in Israel.