Responding to ACRI Appeal, State Doesn’t Renew Welfare-to-Work Plan

In a major victory for social justice and human rights, ministries cancel planned expansion, ending an ugly chapter in Israel’s fight against poverty

Responding to ACRI’s petition against the “Wisconsin” welfare-to-work plan, the State announced that the program, which has severely violated the right to life and work in dignity of tens of thousands of Israelis, would end on April 29, not to be renewed. The State’s response effectively signals the demise of the detrimental program.

The State’s response came after a Knesset Labor Committee meeting on April 28, wherein committee members asserted that the “Wisconsin” welfare-to-work program had failed in helping the unemployed find work and thus would not be extended. In a previous committee debate on Monday, April 26, members of the committee, representing the entire political spectrum from Israel Beiteinu to Meretz, distributed ACRI’s petition to garner support against the program.

According to media reports, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor is preparing to redirect Wisconsin participations to their offices, indicating the end of Wisconsin.

On April 25, ACRI, on behalf of five organizations, submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Wisconsin program, which though still in the pilot phase, has caused inordinate damage to participants – and encapsulates Israel’s failing attempts to deal with increasing poverty.

The petition demands the cancellation of the sweeping authorities bestowed upon private agencies over the lives and very dignity of thousands of individuals. In addition, the petitioners demanded that the Court issue an interim injunction preventing the planned expansion of the program before the Knesset approves it.

Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor has been carrying out the Wisconsin Plan as a pilot project since 2005, in four cities: Jerusalem, Hadera, Nazareth, and Ashkelon. To date, more than 40,000 individuals have participated in the program.

At the same time, Israel has attempted to join the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Though the two initiatives are not connected, OECD studies and others have proved that Israel would be the group’s poorest country – with one of the widest income gaps. Only half of Israeli residents have incomes suitable for a developed country and one-fifth of its population lives below the poverty line.

As such, the program is part of a growing phenomenon in Israel in which privatization has acutely violated human rights. It is also a clear indicator that Israel has failed to effectively and fairly combat poverty.

“The extreme privatization which characterizes the Wisconsin Program has caused the violation of participants’ rights – their dignity, their freedom to choose, and their privacy,” said ACRI Attorney Oshrat Maimon, who wrote the petition with Attorney Amir Paz-Fuchs of the Van Leer Institute. “By attempting to ensure that the number of people receiving welfare benefits does not increase – at all costs – the government has damaged the ability of Israel’s weakest groups to seek and maintain lasting, satisfactory employment.

“Furthermore, the State’s relinquishing of unemployment protection to private hands has damaged the entire Israeli workforce because it has left all workers weakened and without protection.”

The petition points to the recent High Court decision to thwart the privatization of prisons in Israel as it was also a case in which privatization was the acute cause of many human rights violations. Yet, unlike in the case of privatized prisons, the pilot program has yielded a wealth of testimonies, highlighting the program’s harms: the threatening atmosphere, the feeling of contempt and degradation, and the ineffectiveness of the various training programs offered in the context of the program.

Among the causes of the rights violations inherent in the Wisconsin model include the private agencies’ ability to cancel recipients’ rights to unemployment benefits without just or fair reason and the requirement of participants to divulge personal and medical information. Participants have made consistent claims of degradation and humiliation by program supervisors. Since the program was initiated, ACRI and partner organizations have succeeded in advocating for amendments to the program. Yet, the core problem – the relinquishing of critical welfare authority to profit-making agencies – remains.

Despite the program’s severe flaws and the sharp criticism it has received in the media, in the Knesset (parliament), and in the public discourse, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor announced in March that it would expand the program to include another 2,700 participants.

The petition was submitted by ACRI, Sawt El-Amal, Community Advocacy, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow – New Discourse, and Rabbis for Human Rights.

Below are testimonies from “Wisconsin” participants, excerpted from ACRI’s petition:

“In this program you have to demand and fight for all the things you rightly deserve….The feeling is that you have to be very thick-skinned to survive this program in one piece. We don’t have the energy for that. My wife and I decided to leave the program, surrender our stipend and look for work by ourselves”.

“While I was still in the hospital, I obtained and transferred [to my supervisor in the program] documents authenticating my illness through a relative, but the forms were not accepted. My supervisor called me and threatened me that if I didn’t submit the forms by myself, I would be denied my monthly stipend on the basis of an unapproved absence. Out of fear that I wouldn’t receive my stipend, which was the only source of income for my family, I left the hospital [when I shouldn’t have] while I was still connected to an IV. I arrived at the offices of Amin [an agency administering the Wisconsin plan] to personally deliver the documents. At that point, I had difficulty breathing and needed oxygen urgently, and I was evacuated by ambulance [back] to the hospital.”

“Once again, a program supervisor threatened to cancel a participant’s stipend. The threat came after the participant couldn’t find an afternoon day-care program for her 6-year-old daughter so that she could participate in the program. The supervisor demanded that she send her daughter to a day-care center for babies in her neighborhood. When the participant refused, the supervisor retracted her monthly stipend. Thereafter, the participant attempted suicide because she couldn’t withstand the stress of not being able to support her family that month.”

The petition in Hebrew is available on ACRI’s site.

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Categories: Privatization, Social and Economic Rights, Welfare

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