Representatives of the Finance Ministry on Thursday expressed their solid support for the controversial Wisconsin welfare-to-work plan, despite repeated calls from politicians and social welfare activists to either drastically reform the plan or scrap it. Speaking at a Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel conference examining Social Policy - Vision and Reality, Raviv Sobol, deputy head of the Finance Ministry's Budget Bureau, outlined the ministry's economic strategy to reduce society's socio-economic gaps and fight poverty. Among the suggestions made by Sobol, was that the government needed to continue and even broaden the Mehalev Program, which is often referred to by its nickname, the Wisconsin plan. He highlighted the findings of a study commissioned last month by the National Insurance Institute (NII) and conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, which found that more than 20 percent of participants in the two-year-old program had benefited from the scheme. The research covered nearly 16,000 people who started the program on August 1, 2005 and compared their situation with those who received government welfare in areas outside of the plan. "We should not return to the situation of increased child welfare benefits and income support," Sobol told the audience of civil servants, government policy makers, economists, financiers and academics at the one-day conference. "That would be a mistake. We have to move in another direction." Sobol said that budgets for programs such as Mehalev, day care centers for young children and after-school programs should be increased. His comments were followed and reinforced by the ministry's director-general, Yoram Ariav, who said that the path to economic recovery and reducing poverty had to come by increasing the labor force and fighting the problem at the source, which he noted came from segments of the population that did not contribute to the labor market. On Wednesday, however, MK Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu) successfully gained the support of 37 other Knesset members to put forward a bill that would drastically change the Wisconsin plan or have it replaced by another welfare-to-work program. "[MK Shemtov] believes in a comprehensive welfare-to-work program but sees the design of the current program as incorrect," explained a spokesman for Shemtov, adding that despite promises from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last month that the government would investigate the program's shortcomings and implement reforms, as yet no moves have been made. He said that after the positive vote in the Knesset forum on Wednesday, Shemtov's bill would pass to the Knesset Committee for Labor, Welfare and Health to be drafted into law. "The fact that the bill received the support of so many Knesset members, despite the government's opposition to it, shows that most people agree on the need to make drastic changes [to the program]," said Shemtov's spokesman. Some of the criticisms of the program in its current format include claims that it targets the old and the weak and only serves to enrich the coffers of the four for-profit multi-national companies that are currently running the pilot job centers in Hadera-Wadi Ara, Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Nazareth. The Prime Minister's Office, which has been looking into whether the program should continue, would not comment on why the prime minister has not yet reached a decision on whether Mehalev should continue.