The Misery Ministry

Only politicians with both a sense of social obligation and political muscle can turn the welfare ministry into a social affairs ministry, and make good on at least some of the promises made in this election campaign.

Over the past five years, social budgets have increased by 55.5 percent; in less than a decade, child allowances swelled by 300 percent, and a quarter of a million people were extricated from poverty. No, not in Israel, but in a country much favored by Israeli politicians - Ireland. The report containing these statistics was released last week to the Irish nation by the country's minister of social and family affairs, Seamus Brennan, who also pledged that the government would continue its efforts to root out poverty.

Labor chairman Amir Peretz likes to recall with fondness his visit to Ireland two years ago. While he was there, he heard about a fruitful model for cooperation among government, labor unions and the business sector. Peretz believes this model should be reproduced in Israel.

Peretz should aspire to import the Department of Social and Family Affairs as well. In Ireland, this ministry wields widespread authority in areas that directly impact daily life for most citizens. Not only is it in charge of all allowances and subsidies - for children, senior citizens, the unemployed and people with disabilities - but it also provides all the services for these groups. No less significant, the department plays a key role in policy-making for the struggle against poverty.

In Israel on the other hand, the program for the war on poverty is determined by the Finance Ministry, and the individual in charge is the finance minister, presently Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert. When politicians abandon the social front, treasury officials enter through the breach. Thus, national priorities are set by a budgetary yardstick instead of according to professional considerations and values.

The words "social policy" have long been a synonym for allowances to the weak. Thus, a vicious circle was created: Responsibility for the weak was in the hands of weak politicians since no rational politician would dare tie his or her fate to theirs.

Those that tried to do so were punished. Tamar Gozansky of Hadash was kicked out of the 16th Knesset despite being the most social-minded legislator in contemporary history. The leading social legislator of the last Knesset, Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party (NRP), fell victim to narrow and mistaken electoral considerations in the last elections.

Although in the last elections Israeli voters seemed to have made clear their interest in the good of society as a whole, and its weaker members in particular, their voices have apparently fallen on deaf ears. A good example of this is the apparent intention to place the Social Affairs Ministry in the hands of Avraham Ravitz of Agudat Yisrael. Ravitz has been deputy minister of social affairs for a little more than a year. For all intents and purposes, he has been in charge of the ministry. He is a pleasant man, but he is also a sick man. His working hours are limited; he is surrounded by advisors who are primarily working to advance the interests of the sectors they represent; and the ministry runs on inertia.

Since the labor component of the ministry was shaved off and transfered to what became the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment two years ago, and, even more so, since NRP chairman Zevulun Orlev resigned as social affairs minister a year and a half ago, the Social Affairs Ministry has become the Misery Ministry. The status of the ministry has been so reduced that not one of the key players in the present coalition negotiations has demanded the portfolio. The fall will continue unless one of the two big parties asks for it, demands that its authority be expanded and that responsibilities taken from it be restored, and seeks to utilize it to pilot a national anti-poverty drive.

Only politicians with both a sense of social obligation and political muscle can turn the welfare ministry into a social affairs ministry, and make good on at least some of the promises made in this election campaign. Let us see if there is one individual who will stand up and show the voter that not all politicians are cynical demagogues. Rather than a military career as a prerequisite on the way to the government center in Jerusalem, let the resume of an aspiring politician be built on real social action. We deserve no less.