Olmert to establish special panel to amend Wisconsin Plan
Decision follows meeting with Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai, who has announced plans of radical reforms to program.
By RUTH EGLASH
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has agreed to set up an interministerial committee to help draft drastic changes to the controversial welfare-to-work program Mehalev, also know as the Wisconsin Plan.
Olmert made the decision late Sunday night at a meeting with Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai and MKs Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima), Marina Solodkin (Kadima), Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu) and Zeev Elkin (Kadima).
Yishai, who announced last week that he planned to make radical changes to the year-and-a-half-old program, asked Olmert to set up the committee to oversee his proposals. Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office Ra'anan Dinur will head the committee, and those involved will be able to submit their suggestions within the next month.
"This program was created to find a solution to problems that the country had not been able to solve in the past," said Olmert following Sunday's meeting.
Although proponents of the program say that it has assisted more than 10,000 people to find either permanent or temporary employment, Mehalev has constantly come under fire for attempting to force those totally unsuitable for employment, such as the disabled and single mothers, to participate full-time in the program or have their social welfare benefits stopped.
Even the four multinational companies that run the program in Jerusalem, Ashkelon-Sderot, Nazareth and Hadera-Wadi Ara have tried to convince the government that serious changes needed to be made in order for Mehalev to be a success.
"If the government does all the things that we have suggested then eventually this will be an excellent program," commented 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 on August 1, 2005. "It is great that the government finally gave in and is listening to the suggestions made by us and the companies working with the program."
Melamed said the changes, which include developing personalized tracks for participants and allowing reduction of benefits in stages, would also likely call for the program to be renamed and allow certain participants to leave without being penalized.
"However, the unemployed should not be under the illusion that things are going to return to what they were before," he said. "Nobody is going back to signing on at the employment office once a week."
Shemtov expressed her satisfaction that the government was finally tackling this issue: "I finally feel that things are progressing on the right track, it's just a shame that this meeting only happened two years after the program started."
She added that some of the core problems could not wait a month to be handled and needed to be dealt with immediately. Last month, Shemtov secured the support of 83 Knesset members in a bill calling for Mehalev to be scrapped. MK Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud), who was involved in establishing the program when he was finance minister, and coalition chairman Yitzhaki (Kadima) were among those who signed the bill.
At Sunday's meeting, Yitzhaki threatened to bring the bill before the Knesset plenum for a vote, but Olmert urged restraint and promised that the new committee would deal with the issues raised.
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