The Two Worlds of Eli Yishai

There is no program more hated by the social-welfare organizations than the Wisconsin Plan. To them, it is a symbol of absolute evil.

There is no program more hated by the social-welfare organizations than the Wisconsin Plan. To them, it is a symbol of absolute evil. Three organizations filed an urgent petition two weeks ago with the High Court of Justice against Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai, who decided to expand the program and even to extend its period of implementation. They accused him of "cooperating with representatives of the treasury" - and there is no more serious accusation than that.

The social-welfare organizations are not alone. The members of the Knesset Finance Committee who visited one of the program's employment centers two days ago announced that they would demand that substantial changes be made. Dozens of MKs recently signed a proposal to introduce far-reaching changes in the program, which, if implemented, would effectively cancel it.

What is so infuriating about the Wisconsin Plan? It's a program that's in use in most Western countries, some of them socialist. It exists in Denmark, Holland, England, Australia and the United States, among other places. It's intended to confront the main social ill from which Israel suffers - the phenomenon of families that do not work, but rather live on guaranteed-income supplements.

Wisconsin is designed to get those who receive these supplements back into the workforce, to accompany them during the difficult process, providing help and guidance in finding work, including psychological and medical assistance.

In August 2005, after nine years of discussion and debate, the program got under way. It is operated by means of four franchisees in Nazareth, Hadera, Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Sderot, and already it can take credit for impressive achievements.

About 18,000 households subsisted from guaranteed-income supplements in those cities. Today the number has declined to 9,700. That means that 8,300 households have left the circle of welfare recipients. Some of them, it turns out, were working and being paid under the table, and when asked to report for the Wisconsin Plan, i.e. for a week of 30-40 hours of activity, they preferred not to report, since that would have forced them to give up their work. Therefore, they announced that they were waiving the allotment.

It also turns out that a small percentage of those participating in the plan are actually entitled to a disability payment, and therefore, at the same opportunity, justice was done to these people. But the vast majority returned to the job market, after being absent from it for 10 to 15 years.

Israel suffers from a low percentage of participation in the job market: Only 55 percent of those who can work actually go out to work every morning, as compared to 65 percent in Europe and 75 percent in Scandinavia. Until now, though, it was a problem that was not addressed seriously. When a recipient of a guaranteed-income subsidies would come once a month to the Employment Service, the clerk did not make any effort to find suitable work for him. He had no incentive to do so. Instead, the clerk would automatically renew permission for the unemployed person to continuing receiving the allocation, and those same people would return home with a sense of failure, without faith in themselves, and with NIS 2,000 a month, the amount of the payment - a sum sufficient only to doom them to a life of poverty and disgrace.

In comparision, going to work, even for the minimum wage, improves the income level (minimum wage at present is NIS 3,585 a month), with the possibility of promotion and a higher salary down the road. The fact is that when both partners in a family work, poverty disappears almost entirely. Only 3 percent of the families in which both partners work are living below the poverty line. In other words, employment is the right solution for the war against poverty.

All this does not mean that the Wisconsin Plan is perfect. Recently the minister of industry, trade and labor introduced several improvements. The program was extended by one year, until July 2008, and another 8,000 recipients of guaranteed income will be joining it. The formula by which the companies operating the program are compensated will change, so that most of their profits will come from finding high-quality work for the participants, rather than from savings in welfare. Participants will also be given a financial incentive to go out to work - a proper and honorable thing - because there is no more important social goal than encouraging a person to live from the work of his hands.

The social organizations were disappointed. They were sure that Yishai would support their demand to cancel the Wisconsin Plan. But he thought otherwise. Recently, Yishai said that anyone who is able to work must do so. He even said that his father engaged in hard work all his life and never received unemployment money.

The problem is that Eli Yishai is also the head of Shas, which educates the children of its elite not to join the labor market, but to be satisfied with studying Torah. How does that accord with his viewpoint regarding the importance of a life of work?

The answer lies in the system of compensation for someone who has made Torah study his profession. Because those who are students at a kollel (a yeshiva for married men) do not belong to the job market, they do not receive guaranteed income allotments. Rather, their support money comes to them via the Education Ministry, which funds the kollel in which they study. Therefore the Wisconsin Plan does not affect them at all. And thus Yishai can praise the value of labor at the same time that he supports the principle of "their Torah is their profession." Quite convenient, but cynical and confusing as well.