The following is my introduction to a photo essay featured in the pending Fall issue of ISRAEL HORIZONS. In the print edition, photo and biographical portraits are presented of four ‘Wisconsin’ clients. These portraits are made by a cooperative of activist Israeli photographers called ActiveStills.
August 22nd marked the tenth anniversary of President Clinton’s signing into law of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” the formal name for welfare reform in the United States. This federal law was modelled after a program enacted in the state of Wisconsin – “Wisconsin Works” (popularly known as the Wisconsin Plan) that required welfare recipients to work in order to reduce welfare rolls. The Wisconsin Plan or Program has been adopted as the name for a similar welfare reform initiative enacted recently in Israel under the social budgetary cuts (usually described as draconian) implemented under the then minister of finance, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In January 2006, the New Israel Fund (NIF) hired Mark H. Greenberg, director of policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. – a non-profit organization engaged in research, analysis, and advocacy on a range of issues affecting low-income families – to examine Israel’s adaptation of the Wisconsin Plan on a pilot basis. Mr. Greenberg stated the following in the NIF newsletter: “Over the years the US has implemented some very good welfare reform programs and some very bad ones. I’m afraid that in the Wisconsin Plan, Israel has imported one of the bad ones, which is designed to reduce the number of people receiving government payments rather than genuinely assist them to find work.”
In August 2005, steps were taken to implement the Wisconsin Plan in Israel – known as Me-haLev, “From the Heart.” This program involves the privatization of social services, with the ideological aim of eliminating the welfare state.
Rabbi Idit Lev, the Jerusalem-based coordinator for social-economic justice with Rabbis for Human Rights, indicated in a Jerusalem lecture on this subject in June 2006, that child care needs and medical conditions are not given due consideration in the Israeli Wisconsin program. She notes that the private companies that run the pilot centers, including physicians who are not independent of the private contractors, all have a financial incentive to show “success” by denying welfare clients their benefits. So medical conditions are ignored, or defined as less disabling than they are, and people are sanctioned with lost benefits for failing to attend classes or other workfare activities because they must tend to unavoidable child-care needs.
There are also frequent complaints that training classes are useless or inappropriate for clients. Educated people are sent to classes for beginners and people who are illiterates or can’t speak Hebrew are sent to courses they can’t understand. Unemployed people must either attend classes or be assigned to unpaid “community service” jobs such as street cleaning or other work provided by the municipality – up to nine hours a day without getting more than their welfare allowance, which is below the legal minimum wage.
According to Assaf Adiv, writing in the September-October 2005 issue of Challenge, a publication of Israel’s radical left:
‘From the Heart’ includes 17,000 of the 160,000 who receive income maintenance. The plan will proceed on an experimental basis for two years in four centers: East and West Jerusalem, Nazareth and Nazareth Ilit, Hadera and the villages of Wadi Ara, and [in] Ashkelon. Of the participants, 30 percent will be Arabs and 20 percent new immigrants….
The crux of the program is this: every participating welfare recipient will be required to remain in the Wisconsin center between 30 and 40 hours per week, receiving counseling, training and job referrals. If he does not succeed in finding salaried employment, the counselor may assign him to full-time non-paid work in a community institution such as a hospital or charity. Only by doing this work will he continue to receive a welfare check (NIS 2200 per family, equaling $488 monthly).