Analysis: A shining light

While being touted as a completely new initiative, Lights to Employment is really just a patched up version of the Wisconsin Plan.

It seems as though Shas party leader Eli Yishai has got it right again. Known for paying attention to the voices of the people on the street, Yishai, in his current role as industry, trade and labor minister, seems to have successfully turned a generally unpopular program into one that has a rather bright future for Israel's labor market. In just a few short months, Lights to Employment is being hailed - like its name - in a positive light by social welfare activists, who never had anything positive to say about its predecessor employment program - Mehalev, which was usually known by its nickname, The Wisconsin Plan. While being touted as a completely new initiative, Lights to Employment is really just a patched up version of Wisconsin, taking all the negative elements and reworking them without any major changes to the infrastructure. Since its re-invention in July, representatives of the new program excitedly point out that there have been "zero" complaints from the current participants. The first, and perhaps most critical change made by Yishai, was to refocus the four private companies charged with running the show. One of the most stinging criticisms of Mehalev was regarding the bonuses handed out to each company depending on the number of people they managed to get off welfare, regardless of whether participants were actually given suitable job placements. From the start of its initial two-year pilot phase in August 2005, there was a continuum of sensationalist headlines giving incredulous examples of where the program was failing. We heard about the highly educated Russian immigrant being sent to fold laundry in a hospital storeroom or the Muslim women, who had never before left their homes, ordered to work on back breaking gardening projects or risk forfeiting their various social welfare benefits. Under the revised program, however, the four companies - in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Nazareth and Hadera - are only rewarded when they can prove that a person has found permanent employment. "This is the most significant improvement," comments Ran Melamed, deputy director of Social Policy and Communication for Yedid, which has been monitoring the welfare-to-work program since the start. "I am very optimistic that this new format will now succeed." In other areas too, Lights to Employment has proven to be far more considerate of the "little people" than its forerunner. No longer are single parents forced to sit at the center for hours on end just to fill the time; those with medical conditions can present their own doctor's health assessment; and people over 45 are now allowed to decide for themselves if such a program is suitable for their stage of life. Also to be commended is the creation of personalized tracks for participants, with those unemployed for an extended period of time receiving crucial counseling before being sent out to the labor force and those with large families or special needs being given additional assistance. One more change in the new guise, which critics believe has made a big difference, is the existence of an outside monitoring body to deal with complaints and oversee the general running of the program. It beats the internal committee that was so busy trying to prove the program was working that it ignored some of its essential flaws. While this new monitoring body proudly reports that there have been no complaints in the last four months, it is important to note that the number of participants has been drastically reduced from 14,000 under Wisconsin to a mere 5,000 in Lights to Employment, which might explain Yishai's urgency to broaden the program starting next month. Melamed said that he welcomes the increase in numbers and points out that the companies are already set up to increase their "clients," however he is quick to add that the fact there have been no complaints so far does not mean that there are no kinks in the new system. "It could be that they just got rid of those who were complaining," he quips, adding, "There are still some issues that need ironing out such as the fact that there are few employment opportunities in Jerusalem or that people with criminal records are all but blacklisted from many work places." Kinks aside, it seems that Yishai's direction is the right one and as long as he continues to listen to the people that matter, then his program will succeed in lighting up the way to a serious welfare-to-work ethic for the State of Israel.