Future of ‘Wisconsin Plan’ in doubt again

Knesset must decide whether to expand program countrywide, or disband it in search of alternative.

By
April 27, 2010 05:43
2 minute read.
People stand in line at the Employment Authority.

unemployment 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The debate over the future of Israel’s flagship welfare-to-work program, Lights to Employment, intensified on Monday as Knesset lawmakers discussed whether to expand the program countrywide, or disband it in search of alternative employment options.

While no decision was made during Monday’s session of the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, a spokesman for the committee told The Jerusalem Post that legislation was likely to be voted on sometime on Tuesday.

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“Committee members want to discuss it further and wait for the results of the State Comptroller’s investigation into it,” he said.

A decision to extend the program, often known by its nickname “the Wisconsin Plan,” was supposed to have been made late last year; but also back then, legislators could not agree on whether to make it permanent. Instead, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided only to extend it for three more months until a decision could be reached. The extension ends this week.

Launched as a pilot in August 2005, the program is currently outsourced by the government to four private companies in Ashkelon/Sderot, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Hadera and attempts to find permanent employment for thousands of people collecting state benefits.

“This program needs to be expanded, although with some key changes,” commented Ran Melamed, deputy director of social policy and communication for the non-profit organization Yedid, which has been monitoring the welfare-to-work program since it started. “Some of those changes appear in the [pending] legislation that is being discussed, and some do not.” Melamed is quick to point out, however, that much of the criticism leveled at the program stems from problems that arose during its initial phase and that have now been solved.

“I’m not saying there are no problems – there are still issues that need to be solved. But it is running much smoother than before,” he said.

Since its inception, the program has been dogged by controversy. During its initial pilot, there was no shortage of sensationalist headlines giving incredulous examples of its failures. There were stories of highly educated Russian immigrants being sent to fold laundry in hospital storerooms, and of Muslim women who had never before left their homes ordered to work on back-breaking gardening projects or risk forfeiting their social welfare benefits.

Changes made by the previous minister of Labor, Trade and Industry, Eli Yishai, including renaming the program Lights to Employment, confronted many of those problems and for the past two years, Lights to Employment has seen very little negative press.

However, when the government announced last December that it was extending the program for an additional three months, National Employment Service workers, who had previously taken care of services for the unemployed, immediately announced a general strike, fearing that their program could now be in danger of closure.

At the time, current Minister of Labor, Trade and Industry Binyamin Ben-Eliezer immediately issued a statement expressing regret over the strike and assuring employees at the service that a solution acceptable to everyone would be found. According to Melamed, today’s debate over whether to extend or disband Lights to Employment is purely political.

“It is a power struggle,” he said. “There is little thought given to whether it will or will not actually help the people who need help.”

Added Melamed: “It is completely unclear whether this program will continue. But if no decision is reached by Friday, that will be the end of it.”


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