Putting down roots in Wisconsin

The controversial welfare-to-work plan, initiated here last year, has attracted plenty of both critics and defenders. But the Labor Ministry is patching it up and persevering.

industry ministry 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
industry ministry 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Proponents say it's still only a pilot and there are bound to be problems. Critics say it should never have been started in the first place and being run, like it is, by private companies means it stands no chance of being fair or desiring to help people. But the overwhelming majority of people who have studied the Wisconsin Plan (known in Hebrew as Mehalev, "from the heart"), including Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, say that a welfare-to-work ethic must be promoted and most believe that by implementing several key changes, the program could be instrumental in cutting down the number of people claiming benefits and helping the chronically unemployed rejoin the workforce. The pilot program is currently run in four locations by a combination of local and international businesses: in Jerusalem, British multinational A4e runs the program with Israeli firm Aman, forming Amin; Maximus, Inc., of Reston, Virginia, is working with human resources company ORS in Ashkelon-Sderot; Dutch company Calder has joined with Marmanet in Nazareth; and Agens, also from the Netherlands, is working with Yeud Human Resources in Hadera-Wadi Ara. During a recent tour of the Jerusalem facility, Amin director Roy Newey proudly shows me what he describes as a job center with a difference. "We do not have rows of seats in the waiting room and we try to keep waiting time limited. There is a kitchen for people to make coffee, and there are no queues of people anywhere. We try to treat people with respect, try to show them we understand where they are coming from," says Newey, who shuttles between Jerusalem and his home in England, where he also works as the group board director for A4e. "Our goal is to improve people's lives," he continues. "We want to challenge the mind-set and ask people how we can help find them their perfect job. Before we can start to advise a client, we have to shut up and let him tell us about his problems. If we understand what those are, then we will be in a better position to help." AS PART of the tour, Newey introduces me to several case managers who deal directly with the clients - mostly people who have been collecting state unemployment benefits for quite some time - who were selected by the National Insurance Institute to participate in the program. The caseworkers seem consciously empathetic and honest in their descriptions of how they genuinely want to help their clients find a sense of worth by rejoining the mainstream community. But it is difficult not to be cynical about the program and the people running it, especially in light of all the bad press it has received since its official inauguration here on August 1, 2005. While Mehalev spokeswoman Behira Berdugo claims that in the first year of operation, the program helped roughly 8,000 people who were previously receiving welfare and income support to find permanent employment, while placing more than 10,000 people in temporary jobs, in the past year participants have submitted 1,400 appeals against their treatment, of which 24 percent were found to be either partially or fully justified. Stories of highly educated Russian immigrants being sent to fold sheets at hospitals or Muslim women who have never left their homes sent to work on back-breaking gardening projects are just some of those that have appeared in local newspapers. Moreover, demonstrations organized by groups such as the Nazareth-based communist group Saut al-Amal (Laborer's Voice), which claims the program takes advantage of the sick and weak, and Ma'an, a Jewish-Arab group, have brought out the participants and politicians who are least satisfied with the program. The 8,000 people that Mehalev claims have found success within the program are almost never heard from. "There are always going to be people who are not happy with the program," says Ran Melamed, deputy director of social policy and communication for Yedid, the association for community empowerment, which has been acting as a watchdog for the program since it started and runs its own monitoring office in each of the four centers. "However, there are many people who are very satisfied with the program. Journalists and the media always focus on the good case study versus the bad case study, when really they should be looking at what the government is doing to improve the program and iron out the problems." According to Melamed, it is the government that is to blame for the current kinks, which he says have forced many people to give up on their benefits because of the program's lack of flexibility. "We meet people here [at the center] who are going through all the issues associated with being unemployed and then they get a letter saying they've been selected to go on a program and we have the right to take your benefits from you," agrees Newey. Many of them just prefer to forgo their benefits, rather than be forced to participate in the program. "The biggest problem is the lack of a real regulator along the lines that were originally outlined," continues Melamed, referring mainly to the program's administrative director Dorit Novak, who stepped down from the position this week. "What we ended up with instead was a body overseeing the program that went to lengths to defend what they were doing and therefore not address the problems." "I believe that Ran [Melamed] is mistaken. There are many people involved in reviewing the good and bad aspects of the program," Novak responds. "There are outside bodies too, such as the Brookdale Institute, that have been assessing what we are doing." Moreover, the ministry itself hires five people to deal with the complaints from participants and observations by the outside bodies, she says. AMONG the reviews of the program is a report prepared by Hebrew University professor Yossi Tamir, which was commissioned by Yishai when he took over the ministry last March. In the findings, which were presented in September, Tamir suggests that 20% to 25% of the Mehalev participants should be redirected into personalized tracks requiring fewer hours of participation and work per week, and there should be more leniency for those within seven years of retirement age, those with mental or physical disabilities and those with psychological and social problems. Tamir's report also suggests that the chronically unemployed, who have been receiving income guarantee allowances for at least five of the past six years, and those enrolled in rehabilitation programs be moved to special programs with professional attention. Many of these recommendations were made when the panel formulation the original plan first met in 2002, says Tamir, adding that one of his key components is to readjust the aim of the program to increase the number of people ready to return to the workforce rather than simply reduce the number of people receiving benefits. This point is echoed by Newey. "Whereas in the UK we only get rewarded for a job placement, the danger of the program here is that its goal is benefit reduction... We have told Eli Yishai that it should be changed." And it seems Yishai is finally taking notice of Tamir's recommendations and considering the advice of people in the field such as Newey and Melamed. Yishai's adviser on the Mehalev issue, Yossi Farhi, provided The Jerusalem Post with a November 28 letter sent to Novak outlining the key changes and requesting her action on implementing them as soon as possible. Plus, a statement released by the ministry on December 14 clearly outlines the minister's plans for patching up the program, expanding it to other areas of the country and giving the pilot a year's extension. "There will be a series of intensive meetings between the ministry's deputy director and representatives from the Finance Ministry on ways to increase the program's budget and looking at how the recommended changes can be implemented," wrote the ministry in a statement. The ministry also promised that starting January 1, participants who manage to stay in their job placements for one year will receive an incentive of up to NIS 4,200 per year; families with children will have their program individually tailored beginning in February; and the program's economic model will go into operation starting in April. "If all these items are approved in the Knesset and go ahead, [then the program] will be a huge success," says Melamed. "My concern is that it will be very hard to get it all in." "I've always said the results will be in the final implementation of the program [following the pilot]," he continues. "I think that after three years we will really be able to measure the results." And though she has moved on to another important social program - Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies - Novak, like Melamed, says she sees the value of this program for the whole of Israeli society. "There has never been a program like this in Israel and it is an extremely important social project," she says. "In many ways Mehalev is even more important to me than reminding people about the Holocaust because it can help people who are alive. "Many things need to be changed for the program to succeed, but that is the point of a pilot," she says. "I truly believe that Eli Yishai and Yossi Farhi see the potential of this program and will make sure it continues."