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Monday, March 25, 2013

Ultra-Orthodox families in Israel to lose NIS 6,000 a month in benefits

The budget cuts that are part of the new government's coalition agreement would reduce allocations to members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community by NIS 2.3 billion a year, according to articles in Sunday's edition of a popular Haredi newspaper.

Two articles in Hamishpacha, the most widely circulated newspaper in the Haredi community, estimated that the average Haredi family stand to lose state benefits amounting to NIS 6,000 a month, or NIS 71,954 a year. For families where the father studies in a yeshiva full-time, the government allowances and the potential loss of benefits are higher.

But these estimates are in fact exaggerated. The coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his two biggest coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi do not in fact call for eliminating all state benefits received by Haredim.

Nevertheless it marks the first time the Haredi world has tallied up its possible losses after it was kept out of the coalition at the insistence of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, thereby depriving them of bargaining power in the state budget talks as well as control over ministry budgets.

Hamispacha detailed many of the budget line items, changes to which are likely to hit the average Haredi family directly, especially those in which the father is an avrekh, or full-time yeshiva student.

One of the most important clauses in the coalition agreement calls for introducing, into the means test for one of the Housing Ministry's affordable housing programs, the ability to join the labor force. Most of the homes included in the program so far are in Haredi neighborhoods and communities, and the means test emphasizes factors, such as how long the applicants have been married, that tend to privilege the ultra-Orthodox.

Mishpacha estimated that the value of the program works out to about NIS 150,000 to NIS 200,000, or as much as 25% of the home's price on the free market. The cost to the families of avrekhim, if they are disqualified by the man's failure to meet the ability-to-work criterion, could come to NIS 1,500 a month, the newspaper estimated.

Under the terms of the coalition agreement the ability-to-work criterion is supposed to be applied to many other government programs for lower-income Israelis, such as negative income tax, discounts on municipal taxes and various fee exemptions. The newspaper estimated the cost to the family of the average nonworking avrekh at NIS 3,000 a month.

The religious-freedom advocacy organization Hiddush said Hamishpacha was exaggerating the cost of the coalition cutbacks, including items such as child allowances and direct financial aid to avrekhim that are not cited in the agreement.

The coalition agreement does call for limiting subsidized day care for the children of university students and avrekhim to five years. Hamishpacha estimated that this would cost avrekhim and their families between NIS 500 and NIS 1,500 a month, or a total of NIS 1 billion.

“The Israeli public made clear in the last election that they are no longer willing to carry the cost of supporting of tens of thousands of families of avrekhim who don’t want to work,” said Shahar Ilan, deputy director of Hiddush. “We have to hope that Finance Minster [Yair] Lapid will act quickly to meet his commitments.”

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