Social workers demand new welfare minister

Social workers, upset that the government has yet to appoint a welfare minister almost two months into its mandate, protested Sunday morning outside the Prime Minister's Office. "The fact that we don't have a welfare minister is a symbol of the way the whole government takes social problems into account," said Yitzhak Perry, chairman of the Israel Association of Social Workers. Perry told The Jerusalem Post his organization was troubled by the absence of a welfare minister during the recent budget talks. "There was no one to speak for the poor, the elderly and the children at risk at the budget discussion in the government for 2006." The protest, which included social work students and professors from universities, was aimed at influencing the government to appoint a welfare minister before the upcoming 2007 budget talks. "We won't let it happen like a week ago. We are trying to put political pressure on the parties in the coalition to change their attitude," Perry said. If the protest does not influence the government within the next week, Perry said social and welfare agencies in Israel would declare a strike on Sunday, which could include over 9,000 workers. Perry said there was no predetermined length for the potential strike and that social workers would not be paid during a strike. Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Nachum Ido said the office was working fine without a minister, but added, "I can't say it's the best way. No, the best way is to have a good minister who will give us a political beacon, but we do our best." Ido emphasized that the welfare budget was not cut for 2006, and the usual increase in funding was allotted. Even with small increases, Perry said the budget was insufficient to keep up with societal problems. "They are proud they didn't cut it, but I'm saying when you hear about so many poor people and so much social struggle in Israeli society, it's not enough to only stay with the budget of 2005," he said. "The needs are much bigger." Inbal Schlosberg, a second-year social work student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, traveled from Beersheba to participate in the protest. Schlosberg said she was upset that parties like Labor focused on social justice during the elections but had done little to improve things since. "In the end, all the other ministers have been appointed, and there is no one to take care of social welfare and rights," she said. Schlosberg believes this protest was only the beginning of a process of informing people about the problems in the government. Although a member of United Torah Judaism is expected to receive the welfare portfolio, Perry is wary of the effect the party will have on all of Israel's needy populations. In UTJ's negotiations to be part of the coalition, he said, it focused on increasing child allowances which were cut when Binyamin Netanyahu was finance minister. "[UTJ] is fighting mainly for that [child allowances] because their families have 10, 12 and 14 children, so it's very beneficial to them," Perry said. "But we want the welfare minister not to only look at the children of Orthodox families, but also at all children of Israel - including Arabs and new immigrants, one-third of whom are below the poverty line."