NGOs urge changes in welfare-to-work 'Wisconsin' program

Representatives to discuss ways to improve the government's flagship employment program.

jerusalem unemployment line 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
jerusalem unemployment line 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Several social advocacy groups are using the ongoing negotiations on the next government coalition to urge lawmakers to make significant changes to the Lights to Employment welfare-to-work program, The Jerusalem Post has learned. At a joint conference to be held in the capital on Sunday evening, representatives of Rabbis for Human Rights, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, the Alternative Information Center and Commitment to Peace and Social Justice will discuss ways to improve the government's flagship employment program, which is often referred to as the Wisconsin Plan, after the US model on which it is based. Speakers will also present the most recent statistics and personal stories highlighting some of its main problems and examine whether it will hold up through the current economic recession. "Our goal is not to close down the program but to urge the government to make some critical changes that will improve it and the lives of the people it is trying to help," says Gili Rei, director of Commitment to Peace and Social Justice. "We know there are serious plans to expand [Lights to Employment] to the entire country and we think that before any such measure is taken the government must look at how the employment situation has changed in the new economic climate." According to Rei and the other NGO leaders, the main issue is that Lights to Employment has been lumped together with numerous other programs funded by the government through the Economic Arrangements Bill, which is traditionally passed in the Knesset along with the annual state budget, and is scheduled for a vote as soon as the next government is formed. "The [Economic Arrangements] Bill is usually very detailed, and many Knesset members do not have time to read it through in depth," says Rei, adding out that when the Wisconsin Plan was initially approved more than five years ago many MKs did not had time to delve into some of its main problems. She highlights the fact that private companies, who run the program on behalf of the government, have the power to decide when and how participants forfeit their social welfare benefits. "All we want is for such an important program to be viewed separately from the bill and to be discussed by politicians before it is widened to include unemployed people from across the country and the all parts of society," she says. Originally called Mehalev (an acronym meaning 'from the heart' and standing for From Dependency to Self-Sufficiency), the Wisconsin Plan was started as a pilot program in four locations - Ashkelon/Sderot, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Hadera - in August 2005. However, the government's outsourcing of the program to four for-profit multi-national companies and its general inflexibility led to hundreds of complaints from participants. Many claimed they were blackmailed to be part of the program, as they were told they would otherwise lose their state benefits. As the criticism continued and widened, with calls to disband the program coming from various politicians and numerous NGOs, Labor, Trade and Industry Ministry Eli Yishai of Shas agreed to make key changes and in July 2007 revamped the program and renamed it Lights to Employment. The new program was to include personalized tracks for each participant and a reduction in the control of the multi-national companies. Figures from the ministry, which still oversees Lights to Employment, show that 6,770 participants are currently enrolled in the program. On Thursday, a ministry spokesman told the Post that 5,877 people had found jobs since August 2007. However NGOs, which have been monitoring the program since its inception, argue that this is not entirely accurate and that many of Yishai's changes were never fully implemented. Those who have found jobs have experienced a drop in income, say the NGOs. Rabbis for Human Rights' Nitzan Tenami, who is involved in organizing Sunday's conference, points to a recent study by the Brookdale Institute saying that newer participants in the program lost NIS 6 a month in income. "Their benefits are automatically cut and their new salaries do not cover their basic living expenses," says Tenami, adding that Sunday's event is meant to raise public awareness and discussion of these problems. A spokesman for Yishai told the Post he was aware of the issues and even if not appointed to the same ministry in the next government would still fight for changes in the program.