The Core of Poverty

FILE PHOTO: Women working at a tech company in Elad, June 14, 2016
Ofer Vaknin

The alliance forged between Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-Orthodox parties has proven itself. It is allowing Likud to form the next government without needing to fear that the ultra-Orthodox will instead cooperate with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party.

But this alliance is based on a situation that undermines interests and values about which Netanyahu often boasts – progress, technological development, entrepreneurship and global business development. Lior Dattel reports in TheMarker (see Page 7) that the number of ultra-Orthodox students who are exempt from studying the core curriculum and don’t take the matriculation exams has grown steadily, and for the first time has crossed the 90,000 mark. Another 340,000 ultra-Orthodox students say they do study the core curriculum, but if that’s true, they’re apparently devoting minimal attention to it. The ultra-Orthodox pride themselves on being a society of learners, but the skills they acquire are irrelevant to the modern job market.

The prime minister understands this very well, but has put his own political needs ahead of the broader public interest and the welfare of ultra-Orthodox youngsters. He isn’t demanding that they acquire skills that would enable them to integrate well into the job market. He has thereby sentenced them to a life of poverty and reliance on government handouts.

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Netanyahu is responsible for one of the greatest economic achievements of the past two decades – reducing the unemployment rate to just four percent. The “welfare to work” program he introduced while serving as finance minister from 2003 to 2005 pushed many people to join the job market. Introducing a negative income tax and raising the minimum wage also helped this move to succeed.

But this achievement has been played out, and it hasn’t been accompanied by any complementary steps to improve the ultra-Orthodox community’s situation in the job market. On the contrary, Netanyahu’s 2015 decision to increase state funding for yeshivas has caused the employment rate for ultra-Orthodox men to fall. This rate is currently below 50 percent, compared to over 85 percent among other Jewish men. With an employment rate like this and an average of seven children per woman, the poverty rate among the ultra-Orthodox, despite having edged down, remains frighteningly high – 41.3 percent of ultra-Orthodox families are poor.

Given its high fertility rates, the ultra-Orthodox community can’t afford to remain dependent. But to accelerate ultra-Orthodox integration into the job market and reduce the poverty rate, we need a plan to increase labor market participation rates among ultra-Orthodox men and improve their skills so they can earn higher wages. Their current low earning power is directly related to the type of education they receive in their schools.

Netanyahu cannot continue to close his eyes. “He that spares his rod hates his son,” says the book of Proverbs. But Netanyahu, who used to understand this, is sparing the rod. He is thereby forfeiting the well-being of both the economy and ultra-Orthodox society.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.