Don't Confuse Knesset Members With the Facts

Does Israel abuse her oppressed and unfortunate? There is now even a serious academic study that will answer this question. A study conducted over 15 months by the Brookdale Institute tracked the most aggressive and controversial program the Israeli government has ever used in the war on poverty: The Wisconsin Plan.

It cannot be said the state did not display ambition in instituting this plan. The state invested much effort in sending all the most difficult cases of the chronically unemployed in four locales to what was defined as a two-year trial of the program.

Participants in this trial included immigrants from Russia who had come here on the promise that by age 55 they would be able to retire with a pension. It also included immigrants from Ethiopia, Arab women who had never left their villages alone, and people with mild physical or mental disabilities.

The state required all these people to come to the program's operating centers every day for long hours and under threat of the cancellation of the stipends on which they lived. It compelled them to become integrated into the job market.

What was the outcome of all these drastic efforts? The Brookdale report found that 21 percent of the program's participants improved their situations - 13 percent found work and 8 percent extended the scope of their employment. It's not hard to do the math: If 21 percent are doing better than before, 79 percent are not. The program's failure rate is almost four times that of its success.

The Wisconsin Plan's detractors, and there are many, pounced on these findings. A success rate of 20 percent at the expense of physically and mentally abusing the other 80 percent is a torture method that only an obtuse country like Israel could invent.

The reality, however, is much more complex. Being proud of a 21-percent success rate is indeed dubious until one compares it with the previous approach to helping the poverty-stricken jobless - Israel's government-run Employment Services, whose success rate was just 5 percent. That makes the Wisconsin Plan four times better than its alternative.

Furthermore, even though Israel's citizens may view the state's actions as cold-hearted, the Wisconsin Plan is not an Israeli invention. Similar plans have been instituted in most western countries, including those that pride themselves in their social-democratic policies, and they too have recorded their success and failure rates.

The Brookdale Institute's examination of that data found that the success figures for Israel's Wisconsin Plan on par with or even better than those of comparable programs.

This means that all over the world the success rates in returning the chronically unemployed to work are very low because this is the most challenged and feeble population. Even so, throughout the world, job placement programs similar to the Wisconsin Plan are operated in the understanding that there is no better solution.

One of the main conclusions reached around the world is that there are populations that are simply unemployable. These populations have, over time, been removed from the various Wisconsin-type plans.

Some people have been integrated into rehabilitative occupational frameworks, while the authorities have given up on others and conceded that they cannot be rehabilitated. Those populations remain dependent on the welfare systems in each country.

In other words, many countries have concluded that they must not stop helping the chronically unemployed find jobs because returning them to the workforce is the best rehabilitation possible, and because the state wants to make sure it is limiting welfare payments to those for whom there is no other option.

But such cutbacks must be done wisely and moderately. Israel also drew its conclusions from the trial operation of the Wisconsin Plan.

The Brookdale Institute's study helped the government decide that some people should be exempted from the program, more lenient participation requirements should be tailored for others, and changes should be made to the incentives paid to the program's operators for the successful placement of participants in jobs.

The implementation of these conclusions will make the program's success rate even higher, but for that, they have to be implemented.

Whereas around the world the placement of 20 percent of the chronically unemployed is considered a success, in Israel the industry and trade minister is waging an all-out war against the plan, and impassioned Knesset members are calling it worse than Stalin's re-education camps.

Anyone who holds such an opinion apparently should not be confused with the research data compiled by the Brookdale Institute, or the comparisons with the rest of the world.