Rattling the Cage: Capitalism with a human face

Here are a few short-term proposals to fight poverty.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Since the major political parties are rolling out their expensive, long-term plans to fight poverty, here are a few short-term proposals that, taken together, are relatively very cheap. The principles behind them are that the government should (1) enforce the law; (2) stop giving welfare to upper-middle-class and wealthy people; (3) make the basics of life, such as schooling and transportation, more accessible to the "bottom" 70 percent of the population who struggle to make ends meet. The simplest, least controversial of my suggestions is one that's been mentioned by the Labor Party and a government panel on poverty, but it hasn't gotten any attention and I want to emphasize it because it addresses what must be the worst economic injustice in this country. The idea is to hire more inspectors in the Labor Ministry - at least 50 - to enforce the minimum wage law. The ministry estimates that 5% of Israeli employees - or about 125,000 - work for less than minimum wage because their employers cheat them out of the money. The Bank of Israel's estimate is two to three times higher, which would make it 250,000 to 375,000 employees earning less than the legal minimum wage of NIS 17.93 per hour, or NIS 3,335 per month. The most widely exploited are janitors and security guards -overwhelmingly Russian and Ethiopian immigrants - and Israeli Arabs in general. Manpower firms are the main culprits, often in collusion with large government offices and government-owned companies that pay the manpower firms to supply them with plentiful cheap labor. "What use is raising the minimum wage when employers get away without paying it even as low as it is now?" demands Hezi Ophir, head of the Labor Ministry's law enforcement division. He has 23 inspectors to cover the whole country, and says he needs "at least 70" to even begin to cope with the dimensions of this crime. The inspectors manage to catch a few hundred employers a year, while many, many thousands more go untouched. This is a crime that, by definition, strikes only the poor. We are talking about as many as 375,000 working poor people who, together with their families, are being made even poorer by their employers - cruelly, illegally, and with the government's tacit cooperation. Come to think of it, maybe the government's tacit cooperation in this disgrace explains why there are only 23 inspectors in the whole country to deal with it. ONE OF the ways to come up with the money for another 50 labor law inspectors, or for any other anti-poverty measure, would be to stop giving monthly child allowances to families that are well-off. Why does a family with three children that lives on NIS 30,000 a month get the same NIS 474 in monthly child allowances as a family with three children that lives on NIS 4,000 a month? It's crazy, it's wrong. The government should stop giving child allowances to families above a certain household income - say NIS 20,000 a month. And for everybody else, the child allowances should be staggered. Families should be divided into brackets, like they are for income tax. A family that's in a higher income bracket should get less money in child allowances than a family in a lower income bracket. Another way to ease poverty and inequality would be to make it less economically burdensome for the bottom 70% to buy a small car, by staggering the ridiculously high car purchase tax; or to ride the bus, by increasing government subsidies for the ridiculously expensive public transportation. Israel's health insurance tax is set up so the less you earn, the less you pay. Everybody can afford it. Yet Israel's car purchase tax, which runs from 120% to 136% of an automobile's basic price, makes it so there's no such thing as an "economy car" in this country. People in the bottom 70% of the population may buy cars, but they can't afford them because of the taxes. Car taxes are supposed to finally start descending this year, thank God, but somebody making an average wage of NIS 7,000 a month will remain light years from being able to buy the smallest car without it breaking him. As for buses, if the government subsidizes the price of bread and milk, it should also give a reasonable subsidy to the basic bus fare, now up to NIS 5.50, which is way too much to ask people to pay just because they can't afford the insane Israeli price of a car. And finally, "free education" has to stop being an Orwellian term in this country. I went to public school in self-reliant, capitalist America, and I never had to pay for books or basic school supplies - they were handed out free in class, and the books were returned at the end of the semester, to be used again by other pupils. Why can't Israeli schools do that? Why do parents have to spend a fortune and chase around looking for every new book and workbook their kids need? And why do they have to buy these expensive new book bags every year? Why can't Israeli schools provide desks with one simple drawer and free hall lockers so kids won't have to get curvature of the spine lugging their ten-ton book bags to and from class? This is a middle-class, economically growing country; the government has to finally stop pleading poverty and start providing honest-to-God free public education like other middle-class countries have been doing for a century or so. The same goes for dealing with the other scandals I've mentioned: the wholesale rip-off of minimum-wage workers, the squandering of child allowances on families who can already afford to spoil their kids rotten, and the exorbitant cost of basic transportation. It's not hard or expensive to solve these problems - and cutting out monthly child allowances to hundreds of thousands of financially solid families would save oceans of money. This isn't socialism I'm talking about here. It's capitalism with a human face.