Even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues are pulling the wool over the public’s eyes with crumbs of assistance for “ordinary people” in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the Finance Ministry isn’t embarrassed to admit that its official policy is not to help them – not the disabled, not single parents, not elderly women and not people receiving income support payments. The treasury’s arguments for opposing the payment of subsistence allowances as well as unemployment compensation to tens of thousands of the poorest people in Israel (Lee Yaron, Monday’s Haaretz) exposes the government’s real policy in all its nakedness: The strong get government aid, the weak are abandoned to market forces.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of shekels have been deducted from the allowances paid to tens of thousands of needy people who were fired or put on unpaid leave due to the coronavirus crisis, and who therefore requested unemployment compensation. Because the law makes a distinction between income from work and unemployment compensation, anyone who became unemployed absurdly saw his allowance cut. For instance, a single mother with three children who received a monthly income support payment of 2,869 shekels ($817) before the coronavirus crisis began will get an allowance of only 1,034 shekels ($295) now that she is unemployed.
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In an unusual and admirable move, Social Affairs Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) responded to Haaretz’s report by promising to submit an amendment to the law in conjunction with National Insurance Institute director general Meir Spiegler. The bills they drafted were supposed to be presented to the cabinet for approval this week. But not surprisingly, the treasury decided to thwart the amendment. Its first argument was that there’s no budget to fund it. But in the same breath, it wrote that the cost of the change would be 335 million shekels – in other words, less than half a percent of the government’s budget for dealing with the coronavirus, which is expected to come to 100 billion shekels.
This is a declaration in black and white that for the poorest Israelis, the government isn’t willing to spend even half a percent of its budget. For the sake of comparison, when Harel Wiesel, CEO of the Fox clothing chain, demanded a much larger amount of aid, the treasury didn’t tell him “there’s no budget for it.”
The treasury’s second argument came from its standard playbook for anything related to helping the poor: “It will create a disincentive for work.” But this time, that argument blatantly ignored the fact that a worldwide pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented number of unemployed people and the closure of most workplaces. And on top of this disregard for the state of the job market, the amendment can’t possibly affect allowance recipients’ future motivation to find work, because it’s defined as an emergency law that will be in effect only for the months of March through May.
This is an unacceptable policy. The state must demonstrate the same level of commitment to stopping the spread of the economic virus, locating its carriers and caring for its victims as it has in dealing with the coronavirus.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.