The government on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a new version of the controversial welfare-to-work "Wisconsin Plan" with a program that is tailored to the younger generation, while extending the plan's trial period for an additional two years.
The new plan, called "Lights to Employment," was constructed by Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai and the "Dinur Commission," which is headed by the director-general of the Prime Minister's office, Ra'anan Dinur.
Yishai, who has been calling for a change in the construction of the Wisconsin Plan, or Mehalev in Hebrew, for a number of months, said at the announcement of the new plan that "those who will be participating are customers of the government and should not be treated as enemies of the state [as had been the case with the original Wisconsin Plan]."
The "Lights to Employment" plan will operate in the same four regions as Wisconsin, however it stipulates that participation is compulsory only for those aged 45 and younger. Those over 45 will no longer be forced to participate, but rather are free to seek employment assistance from the State Employment Service whether or not they are employed. The Wisconsin Plan had required its participants to be employed in order to be eligible for employment assistance.
Additionally, the new program specifically seeks to target and assist new immigrants, single mothers and those with specific job-skills.
Other changes to the plan's current make up include personal tracks for each participant to allow them to join the work force, financial bonuses to those who successfully find work and the establishment of a professional committee to oversee the plan during the next two years.
"We identified the problems with the current program and the inter-ministerial committee suggested its solutions," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet. "It seems as if we are now on the right track and it is clear to everyone that the new program will offer greater chances to the weaker segments of society."
The Wisconsin Plan was introduced in August 2005 and is being run as two-year pilot in four locations - Jerusalem, Ashkelon-Sderot, Nazareth and Hadera-Wadi Ara - by four multi-national companies. The original two-year trial comes to an end this month.
Although official figures claim that more than 10,000 people have managed to find either permanent or temporary employment via the program, the plan's stringent rules have come under constant fire for attempting to force the elderly, disabled and those totally unsuitable for employment to participate or face have their social welfare benefits stopped.
The program, which has been sharply criticized by participants, social activists and politicians for encouraging private companies running it to make a profit by getting as many people off welfare as possible, continues to draw the ire of some despite its new format.
"All of the changes that Olmert and Yishai claim to be making are fake," said MK Lea Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu). "We want people to be off of welfare, however, we want to change the program to a set-up where the private companies will only receive bonuses for ensuring that participants are employed. The way that it currently works, the companies do not have an obligation to ensure that participants are employed and this has not been changed from the old program. This is going to quickly end up resulting in an increase of new complaints about the program.
"We want to take care of the handicapped and single-mothers, but this program is not going to do that, it will only fool people into believing that something new is going to happen," she claimed.
Ayala Sabag, a local social activist who works with some of the most underprivileged segments of society, had mixed reviews of the new plan.
"On the one hand, it will be good for those above the age of 45, because now they will be able to receive government assistance without problems, however, for those below 45, it will be very difficult for them, as there are just not enough jobs for everyone, making it very hard for them to be eligible for social welfare assistance."
Yishai, though, is confident that the new plan will be effective in "giving the citizens of Israel all the necessary tools they need in order to obtain work with honor."
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