Herzog looks for improved 'social justice' in 2008 budget

Increased benefits for the elderly and disabled, continuing income support for single mothers even if they chose to study or seek professional training and a special holiday bonus twice a year for those receiving unemployment benefits or income support are just some of the reforms Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog and National Insurance Institute (NII) Director-General Yigal Ben-Shalom will seek later this week when the two meet with finance minister Ronnie Bar-On to discuss the 2008 state budget. "[These reforms] are based on social justice and will reinforce the social commitment of the State of Israel," said Herzog in a statement referring to the recommendations, which, if accepted, will see a return of some of the welfare handouts cut by Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu when he served as Finance Minister in 2005. Herzog said the aim was to urge the government to take on a socio-economic agenda that would reduce poverty and see a more balanced distribution of wealth and employment in Israeli society. Ben-Shalom said he was hopeful that the plan would repair some of the damage done to society's weakest populations over the past few years and improve the level of handouts from the NII that currently exists. Among the recommendations being made is a plan to continue paying out income support and other benefits to recipients even if they chose to study or seek out professional training in a field of their choice. Currently, benefits are stopped if a recipient starts to study. The minister also hopes to expand the number of disabled children eligible for disability benefits at a cost of NIS 75 million a year and to link the benefits currently received by the elderly to the average national wage. Aside from increasing individual benefits, Herzog will also ask the finance minister for a special fund to support children at risk. Whereas today the allocation to help youngsters in difficult situations stands at NIS 15m. a year, he would like to see that sum raised to NIS 40m. A spokeswoman for Herzog told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that the minister was hopeful that Bar-On would accept the plan if not in its entirety, at least partially. She said the partnership between the NII and the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services was based on the close cooperation between the two offices and the increased benefits did not mean a larger budget but simply reassigning funds already received from the government. "We are not asking for a specific amount, just for the minister to change the order of priorities so that these issues are not left out," she said.