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Last week a very important document was published and sent to leading public figures, including all Knesset members. The document, distributed by the Israeli Center for Social Justice, is entitled "Establishing a social target in the national budget: a compass for appropriate policy." It was written by former Project Renewal head Hagit Hovav and Rama Zuta.
The premise of the document is simple: If we want to improve the poverty situation in Israel, we need to make this goal an explicit policy objective, and create accountability for its progress. The best way to do this is by adding social targets to the current economic ones.
For many years, Israel has had two main accountable policy targets: the inflation rate and the budget deficit. Governments are required to state targets for these and give an accounting of their success in attaining them. Most observers feel that these targets have been an impressive success, and a primary factor in Israel's success in lowering budget deficits and inflation rates from among the highest in the developed world to levels characteristic of our developmental peers. My readers already know that my ethics mantra is "transparency and accountability" and an explicit social-policy target promotes both.
Another reason to believe that a social policy target is a good idea is the fact that the European Community is moving decisively in this direction. A 2002 agreement obligates each member state to develop its own targets and mechanisms for their implementation and evaluation. Emulating the European Union makes sense because decisions of major conferences are usually based on extensive and high-quality research; because the EU has had impressive success in fighting poverty; and because it is generally helpful to conform to international norms and maintain a basic foundation of consistency in the construction and application of statistics, because this maximizes our ability to learn from the experience of other countries. (I personally believe that there is another advantage, which is that it promotes integration in the European Community, which I view as a logical and progressive step for Israel. Our participation in the Euroleague and the Eurovision testify to our cultural integration into Europe; more political and economic integration seems, to me, a logical step.)
While not all EU countries have yet complied with this directive, a number have, and the report of the Center for Social Justice gives a wide range of edifying examples. Greece, Spain and Portugal target the total number of individuals living under the poverty line, while England has focused specifically the number of poor children.
Other countries have chosen to focus directly on the labor-market conditions that alleviate poverty. Ireland commits to increase women's participation in the work force; France to reduce the school drop-out rate; the Netherlands to increase the employment rate of immigrants; and Sweden to increase the entire work force participation rate and to reduce the number of families dependent on support payments. The Netherlands adds a particularly ambitious goal of increasing the life expectancy of the lower class by a full three years.
The report does not recommend any particular choice of measure or measures. Rather, it urges the creation of a public committee that will be charged with soliciting and evaluating potential targets and then formulating recommendations.
The report does suggest that any measure should fulfill a number of basic conditions. For example, it should be comprehensible (not overly complex); agreed as a worthy goal by a broad consensus; be based on available data; and be amenable to application and evaluation within the tenure of one government. Additional desiderata are that the measure ideally should be based on methodology found in scholarly literature and, if possible, should already be applied with success in some other country.
Reducing poverty in Israel is a vital policy goal. While a number of measures of exist, all show that our country has among the highest poverty rates of any advanced country. Taking this goal seriously requires creating a transparent and accountable policy to achieve it. Economic conservatives tend to be suspicious of "social" goals, viewing them as a Trojan horse to justify increased government intervention, but the example of Europe shows that the policy instruments chosen to improve social conditions can be pro-market (as they are in Sweden and Ireland) as easily as they can be pro-government.
The painstakingly crafted report just released by the Center for Social Justice can serve as an admirable blueprint for a transparent and balanced process for putting social goals on Israel's policy agenda.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethic Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He also is a rabbi.