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Across Israel, 3,280 Mehalev (Wisconsin) program participants, constituting 18 percent of the total, were gainfully employed by the end of December, the administrator of the program said Monday.
"We are meeting the program's goals. The number of placements is higher than expected, while the number of appeals submitted and found to be justified is lower than what was expected," program administrator Dorit Novak told a conference gathered at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute to mark the first half-year of the program and examine its performance thus far. "The program is being conducted in the spirit that we had hoped for."
Of the jobs matched with Mehalev participants, 17% were in cleaning; 12% in industry; 8% in sales; 7% in clerical positions; 5% each in agriculture, hospitality (hotels and restaurants) and other services; and 4% each in security, construction and education. The remaining 6% were placed in a range of "other" fields.
"It's true that the one of first ones placed [in Jerusalem] was a doctor at Shaare Zedek, and there are jobs like that as well, but most are in other fields," Novak said.
The positions filled were evenly split between part-time and full-time work, with 51% and 49% of the total, respectively.
Mehalev stands for a Hebrew phrase meaning "from income-guarantee [allowances] to certain work." Also known as the Wisconsin Program, after a precedent welfare-to-work campaign in that US state, the two-year Israeli pilot involved the opening in August 2005 of four employment centers - in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ashkelon-Sderot, and Hadera-Wadi Ara - run by four private-sector partnerships. Companies from the Netherlands, the UK and the US with experience managing welfare-to-work programs were selected and matched with Israeli partner companies.
Of the 18,000 unemployed Israelis included in the pilot population, 7,478 have received services and guidance thus far, and 2,016 are helping out in community service activities. Courses and training sessions have counted 12,762 participants, with people who took two courses being counted twice.
A central task of the Mehalev centers is to help neutralize obstacles that have prevented the participants from finding work, often by providing logistical support (childcare, transportation) or advising on presentation and inter-personal skills.
Fully 3,436 welfare recipients included in the pilot population - constituting more than 18% of the total - have dropped out and had their welfare payments stopped, Novak noted. Some 1,703 never reported to the Mehalev centers; 1,701 were either absent too often or failed to cooperate; and 32 refused to accept an employment matched to them. When representatives of the Mehalev administration have called some of the no-shows to see what prevented their participation, most answered that they were "getting along" or told the administration to leave them alone, Novak said.
Hebrew University professor of social work Yossi Tamir estimated that the bulk of those who refused to participate because they were cheating the system - working under the table while receiving welfare payments - have been weeded out, allowing the welfare-to-work program to bring down the number of welfare recipients through job placements almost exclusively.
By December, disgruntled participants had submitted 350 appeals to the Mehalev administration appeals committee, of which 3% were upheld, 5% were partially upheld, 41% were rejected, 11% were withdrawn by the appellant, and 40% were still under examination.
The appeals process is "a very important mechanism allowing us to learn and make repairs," Novak said.
New efforts are planned to gather data on no-shows and follow up on those whose welfare payments were stopped as a whole, alongside the appointment of a representative to handle public inquiries. Novak also hopes to initiate efforts to expand the pilot population further. The Mehalev administration is also developing a track to provide Mehalev participants who have worked one full year to receive a voucher granting them a free course to improve skills needed to advance, as a further incentive to stay employed.
"He who perseveres advances, and his wage rises," said Novak.
Unemployed people included in the Mehalev program are required to participate in the activities of one of the four program offices for a total of 30 hours per week (excluding time off and excused absences), while those in the rest of the country are required simply to report once a week to the Employment Service, Industry Trade and Labor Ministry Director-General Raanan Dinor said.
Prof. Tamir stressed that legally this, and other requirements, are nothing new. "The companies are simply implementing what the law allowed for in the first place."
Monetarily, the Mehalev program already has succeeded in bringing down government spending on welfare payments down to NIS 2.7 billion in 2005 from NIS 2.9b. the year before, Dinor said.
But Novak stressed that monetary savings were not the aim, and would not last in any event, since more government funding was planned to go to services to support long-term participation in the work force.
"The program is not supposed to reduce state spending - to the contrary," she said.
Deputy Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Aflalo added: "Whoever talks in terms of bringing down percentages [of welfare recipients], that's not the goal. Whoever thinks so is sorely mistaken. Also [if any] company thinks so [they are mistaken]."
Prof. Tamir confirmed that in Wisconsin itself, the unofficial namesake of the Israeli program, while spending on welfare payments itself was reduced to $40 million in 2002 from $217m. in 1997, government spending on childcare allowing single mothers to work outside the home rose to $266m. from $72m., more than offsetting the money ostensibly saved.
About 145,000 households in Israel receive welfare income-guarantee allowances, up 6.7% over the past decade, while the country's population grew only 2.3%.
Currently some 55% of the population is participating in the work force - either through employment or by looking for a job - as compared with the OECD average of 69%.
The government hopes to increase participation in the work force to 60% by 2010 and reduce unemployment to between 6% and 7%, necessitating the creation of 35,000 jobs yearly, Dinor said.
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