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Interview with Dr. John Gal

Michal Freedman interviews Dr. John Gal

Dr. John Gal is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Work in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a member of the Tamir Committee, which in 2002 made recommendations for implementing the Wisconsin Program in Israel. (Here called Mehalev, the program's basic aim is indicated in its slogan, "From Welfare to Workfare." The pilot version, which started in August 2005, is now at the center of a debate involving all sectors of Israeli society.) Today Gal is on a public committee appointed by Israel's Academy of Sciences to evaluate the program's achievements and failures so far. The recommendations will be published in the summer of 2007.

How would you characterize Wisconsin's target population?

The program is aimed at people who've been living many years on income maintenance. These are not the short-term unemployed, rather people with impediments that have long kept them from working.

Does Wisconsin fit the Israeli labor market, where despite economic growth at the top, people with little education remain jobless?

It's no wonder drug. Clearly, such programs can work only in a growing economy, in which the first to benefit are the educated. Growth can help the less educated too, but this takes time and effort. The programs in America and Europe have improved the incomes of some participants, but just barely.

Can you say more about how Wisconsin has functioned in the rest of the world?

Today every welfare state has some kind of plan to help, encourage or force the recipients of guaranteed income to enter the labor market. There is no real argument over the justification of such "activation" programs (as they're called in Europe), but there's a big dispute about their content: who should implement them, how to do so, what ought to be the target group, what kinds of sanctions to apply, what activities to engage in, and so on. I would distinguish two essential types: the European and the American, both of which have influenced the implementation in Israel.

The American program focuses on one-parent families, with the aim of reducing the number of welfare recipients. The use of sanctions is central, and there's a limit to how long welfare will be given.

This American program has had limited success. On the one hand, there was a drastic decline in the number of welfare recipients. On the other hand, poverty was not reduced, mainly because the program pushed many people into jobs where the pay is very low. It is estimated that only about a third improved their standard of living, while that of the rest remained the same or deteriorated, regardless of whether they found work.

Europe, by contrast, has a wide variety of programs aimed at groups that suffer from exclusion: immigrants, youths who never joined the labor market, people with disabilities, and adults who've long been jobless. There is more investment to improve the kinds of skills that are in demand. There is less use of compulsive measures or drastic sanctions. The aim is not just to reduce the number of recipients, but also to reduce the exclusion from society. In general, the European programs offer the participants greater freedom of choice. In Britain, for instance, the mothers in single-parent families are not required to join the program.

In the Israeli case, do you think that Wisconsin's problems derive mainly from the way it is implemented or from the basic conception?

Both. For instance, the chosen economic model put too much emphasis on reducing the number of recipients and too little on job placement. For the companies implementing it, the reward for placement is small compared to that for reducing the welfare rolls. Recently the economic model was corrected on this point, but there's still a basic problem. The model checks whether people have been placed in jobs, but it fails to measure their standard of living. Logically, a criterion of success should be improvement in the living standard of the participants, say a year or two after leaving the program.

Where implementation is concerned, another problem is that of sanctions. Today, if a person doesn't meet the demands of the Wisconsin clerk, the clerk can stop his welfare payment for a month – in some cases even longer. In my view, this sanction is too harsh. It is not to be found in any other country except the US and Spain. Most countries will allow a reduction of the welfare payment, but not an immediate cancellation. They assume that most participants need to support their families and that their children should not be victimized.

In addition, the personnel of the Wisconsin companies here are often underqualified. They are not required to have a university education, and their professional training is limited. The same people deal not just with job placement but also determine each participant's personal program. They decide what job is suitable and they also decide on sanctions.

One of the methods for handling participants is to send them to community service. I don't exclude this idea altogether; one can use it as a temporary measure, as a transition to the real labor market, and for the sake of instilling work habits. The issue is rather one of proportion. In Europe the use of this method is kept to a minimum, whereas with us it's wholesale. It's especially used toward people who seemed impossible to place in the free market and who couldn't be included in the training courses.

From the beginning it was decided to force everyone who wasn't working to enter the program, without differentiation. This has created a situation where there are people sitting around for more than a year already in our Wisconsin centers, and there's nothing to be done with them. They must report, however, or their allotments will be cancelled. This includes people older than 55, who have no reasonable chance of entering the labor market, and people who suffer from all kinds of medical disabilities, or mothers of small children. Instead, we need a structure that will distinguish between those who fit the program and those who don't.

Given the kinds of positions that are offered and the respective wage levels, do Wisconsin participants stand a real chance of raising their living standards?

It has to be clear: most of those in the program have little chance of remaining employed, both because of the kind of work they are offered – basically, temporary jobs – and also because the wages are extremely low, usually the minimum. What must be done is to make sure that these people are suitably paid and that the employers have an incentive to keep them. For this reason I favor the proposal to give a special grant to those who remain in the labor market more than a year. This should be more than the 4200 NIS [$1000] suggested today by the Finance Ministry.

How do you think the program should be dealt with in the future?

In the recommendations of the Tamir Committee four years ago, we proposed that various factors should be part of the program: private, public and governmental. In fact, however, only private companies won the tender to operate Wisconsin. A minimal proposal would be that non-profit and governmental organizations should also be included.

In addition, there needs to be a more careful selection of the participating populations. We must guarantee that those who cannot take part in the program should not be in it, but should nevertheless be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

We also need to use sanctions in a more sophisticated manner. We need to show a lot more sensitivity to the participants' characteristics and needs. Those who think they've been unjustly treated should have easier access to appeals committees. These need to show much greater flexibility. They should allow the appellants to be represented by a lawyer or an authorized person. Also, people should have freedom of choice. They should become full partners in the design of their personal programs.

To sum up, we need to adopt a social package with two main ingredients: the expansion of the program to the entire country and, in tandem, a rise in income-maintenance allotments to a reasonable level. We need to restore the right balance between the desire to integrate people in the labor market and the guarantee of a life with dignity, at an improved living standard, to those outside it. In recent years this balance has been undermined. We must do all this by means of the program, but also by a higher minimum wage and perhaps a negative income tax. Where Wisconsin is concerned, this improvement will depend on changes in the program such as those I have mentioned, and especially by reducing the reliance on private companies alone. "end"

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