'Wisconsin Plan' May Close in Two Weeks

The welfare-to-work program could end in two weeks because MK Haim Katz (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, objects to the bill that would expand the program to the entire country starting January 1, 2010.

The current law provided for a pilot program of five employment centers through the end of 2009.

Without new legislation the program will expire at the end of the year. The idea was to provide the chronically unemployed with tools to find work and keep it and thus leave the state entitlement system.

The bill under discussion would expand the program to the entire country and extend it indefinitely.

There are now 6,000 participants who are working and receive a state-paid incentive of one monthly salary a year if they stay on the job. If the program closes, they will lose this incentive, and many may stop working, the treasury says.

Another 6,000 people are required to attend the employment centers in the five cities, where they are given career and employment advice and counseling, help in writing resumes and other services. These centers will be closed if the program ends.

Participants also receive other support, such as babysitting help and subsidized transportation to the centers and work.

The state has invested NIS 400 million so far in the program, some of which may be lost if the program is called off.

Katz, and other politicians, have been voicing opposition for months to the expansion of the program. This week he announced that he will convene the Knesset committee next week to deliberate on the legislation.

The mayors of 12 large cities yesterday sent Katz a letter saying that the cancellation of the program would raise unemployment. The mayors plant to launch a radio and television campaign on Sunday aimed at raising support for the program's expansion.

A few months ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried in vain to pressure Katz to approve the program's expansion and extension. Sources in Likud say getting the law passed will amount to a test for Netanyahu.

The welfare-to-work program, also known as the "Wisconsin plan," began in August 2005 in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Nazareth, Hadera and Netanya, with 45,000 participants initially. They all were all unemployed and received guaranteed income allowances. About 20,000 of them found work; according to the Finance Ministry this is a high rate of placement for such a population.

The Economic Arrangements Bill - supplementary legislation to the budget - presented to the Knesset six months ago include the expansion of the program, but after MKs objected it was removed from the bill and introduced separately.

Katz, and the committee, have in effect frozen the proposal since then.