Tuesday’s significant cuts to child allotments – which Finance Minister Yair Lapid said stood between “a culture of work” and “a culture of benefits” – raised tough questions on how the government could help alleviate poverty.
The Finance Ministry estimated that the cuts saved an annual NIS 2.75 billion in the 2013-14 budget framework, though opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich noted that the average family would lose NIS 2,000 per year because of the allotment cuts.
The changes cut allotments for the first child from NIS 175 to NIS 140, for the second from NIS 263 to NIS 140, for the third from NIS 295 to NIS 172.2, for the fourth from NIS 459 to NIS 336, and for the fifth from NIS 389 to NIS 354.2.
In July, the Knesset Finance Committee moderated tougher cuts from Lapid’s original budget proposal, which were slated to slash allotments to NIS 140 per child across the board.
While Lapid argued that cuts would push people to work, noting that only five percent of families with two working parents were poor, Yacimovich countered that 65% of poor families were working families.
Labor faction leader Isaac Herzog said Lapid “bombarded us all with festive chatter about the importance of the cut.”
“Did you understand? The finance minister is proud of increasing the burden for hundreds of thousands of homes that will suffer terribly from losing income, and he’s doing this on the eve of the High Holy Days, which are near,” Herzog wrote on Facebook.
Herzog added that Lapid is feeding flames of hatred and animosity toward population groups that have many children.
“I thought all night about the children and families with parents who work hard and still don’t earn enough,” he wrote. “I thought about the massive poverty that this unnecessary step will bring to our society, about the intolerable social ramifications that we will experience that will lead to violence, alienation and exclusion.”
Herzog concluded by saying, “The finance minister should be ashamed.”
Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz criticized the child allotment cuts as “a mark of Cain on the social and economic policies of this government.”
“The government is harming the middle class and weaker sectors, even though it has a massive reserve of NIS 13.1b. in Yesh Atid’s offices and the Prime Minister’s Office,” Mofaz added.
Itzhak Kadman, who heads The National Council for the Child, agrees that cutbacks mean substantial numbers of children will fall below the poverty line in a year in which families are already being hit by higher value-added tax.
“Most families receiving child allotments are working families. Most of the cuts to allotments will fall on the shoulders of working parents,” he wrote in a policy paper.
Kadman also argued that in most Western countries, support is going up, not down, and that even before cuts, Israel fell below the OECD average. The average EU country spends 4.3% of GDP per capita on child benefits, while in Israeli it’s just 2.4%.
Others, however, said Lapid did not go far enough, and ended up with a middling policy.
“I don’t think it was good before, and I don’t think it is good now. I think child benefits are a bad way to spend a lot of money that is providing very negligible good,” said Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy and professor of economics at Tel Aviv University.
In Ben-David’s view, the discussion on child allotments and poverty should be linked to a more pressing problem: education.
“Cuts need to be part of a strategic plan. It’s not all tactics,” he said.
Rather than spend billions of shekels on padding the pockets of the poor based on the number of children they have, he argued, the government would do better to extend school days and provide children with nutritious, hot meals. The caveat: only schools that teach core curriculum would receive the benefits.
“A meal costs more, but nobody can say you’re starving children, and in addition you’re making sure they have a future, so you’re solving long-run problems by putting out short-term fires.”
Longer school days would mean more time for instruction, but more importantly, it would free parents up to work.
“In poor neighborhoods, people can’t afford childcare.
If you want them to go to work, take care of their children and free up their time,” he said.
Without a focus on getting children properly educated, he says, poverty will only get worse. Arab and haredi schools, which now educate nearly half of Israeli students, need to include a strong core curriculum if the children are to ever hope for brighter futures.
“This country won’t be able to support a first world economy with a third world education, or a first world army, which makes this a national security issue,” he said.
“Modern, Western societies force their parents to send their kids to school.
Those that don’t teach the core curriculum should not get one shekel from the government.”
To Lapid’s credit, Ben- David conceded, he has increased the education budget, and made a concerted effort to push core curriculum requirements.
He also promised to help fill in the nutritional gaps, saying the government would provide “hundreds of millions for nutritional security.”
But Kadman argued that one issue has nothing to do with the other.
“There is no connection between education and child allotments, or nutrition and child allotments, and they should not come at the expense of one another,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an e-mail.
“The goal of child allotments is not to transfer resources from the rich to the poor, but to transfer resources from families without children to families with children.”
Such benefits help fill the deep costs imposed by children, which even families with good incomes may have trouble paying. Further, it is an investment in the country’s future.
“The goal is not to stop giving child allotments,” he continued. Eliminating poverty “requires complex focus on policy changes in education, welfare, health, employment, parental education, social security and more.”