Analyze This: What Shas welfare policy has to do with leaving children behind at the airport - and elsewhere

How it has to do with leaving children at the airport.

yishai looking sharp 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yishai looking sharp 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sun D'Or Airlines, the El Al charter subsidy that had a flight take off for Paris from Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday even though one of its checked-in passengers had been left behind in the terminal - a three-year-old girl forgotten by her parents and four siblings in their mad rush for the plane - has decided to take some corrective action. The airline announced this week that it would allow more time between the closing of the gate and the take-off of its flight, especially to make sure no such similar security lapses would occur in which unaccompanied luggage might make it onto its planes. That's all well and good, but doesn't address the genuine underlying problem that caused this well-publicized incident: There are apparently some families in this country - including among the haredi sector, as was the case with this clan - that have more kids than they can seemingly handle (at least at airports). So if Sun D'Or really wants to prevent this situation from happening again, perhaps it should also look for ways to make sure that the Shas party doesn't succeed in its current campaign to reinstate the specific cuts in child allowance benefits that were instituted five years ago. Those cuts were designed specifically to reverse a previous economic policy that was encouraging this country's two poorest sectors - the haredim and Israeli Arabs - to have large families. The mechanism was simple: Under the old regulations, the more children one had, the progressively greater amount of welfare one received - with particularly big jumps in monthly benefits starting from the fifth child. The child allowance reforms, spearheaded in particular by former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, gradually reduced those amounts to what this year became a flat fee of NIS 152 per child - although applicable only to those children born after May 31, 2003, when the cuts were passed into law. Were the more generous original child allowance benefits - in which a family of 10 could receive a net NIS 6,500 monthly, a sum not far off the national salary average - really encouraging haredim and Israeli Arabs to have bigger families? One way to check that is to examine what impact these cuts have had, even before going into full effect. One report released earlier this year showed that while birth rates have remained relatively high among haredim and Israeli Arabs, they have dropped somewhere on the order of one child per family in these communities since the cuts were enacted - a statistically dramatic change given the time frame involved. Shas is apparently not happy with those results, and in recent months has been particularly vocal in trying to get the child allowance cuts reversed - so far with little success. Now, however, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation and the need for his successor to form a new government or go to elections, political events may be breaking in the Sephardic haredi party's favor. This week, Shas chairman Eli Yishai stated bluntly to The Jerusalem Post that "any government that we join will have to accept our demand to increase child allowances." This demand, combined with the carefully choreographed meeting on Sunday in which Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef gave Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu his "blessing," are clearly calculated to send a warning to the Kadima primary contenders: Meet our demand on child allowances - or be prepared to go to the polls. One of the Kadima frontrunners, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, has reportedly told supporters that he's got that message loud and clear and is ready to pay that price. His primary rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who may find it even harder to form a new coalition if she wins the primary, is likely also to find it a difficult offer to refuse. But Shas may be playing this game with a weaker hand than it lets on. Recent polls show it would fare no better in new elections, possibly even dropping a few seats from its current 12, and would certainly no longer be in the position of coalition linchpin. Nor can it necessarily expect to find a more receptive partner on the child-allowance issue in a government headed by Netanyahu, who gives strong credit to the reforms he championed as finance minister as being responsible for the economic upsurge that followed. Sources close to Yishai have told the press that they believe Livni, too, will choose in the end to give in on the child allowance issue to retain the premiership for Kadima. That could well be, perhaps in the form of a face-saving compromise that would at least temporarily pump increased short-term welfare relief to large families. Even that, though, would constitute a step backward to official welfare policies that, evidence increasingly shows, have not only not relieved poverty, but increased it. To be fair, let's note that in truth, no one can state for certain whether fluctuations in child allowance benefits had any impact on the size of that family who forgot a kid at Ben-Gurion Airport - or whether even if they'd had one or two fewer children, one still might have been left behind on the way to Paris. But if this government, or the next, really doesn't want to see more children left behind in poverty and neglect in years to come, it's going to have to weigh that concern very heavily against the demands of Shas. [email protected]