A rather incredible article appeared on the Dei'ah veDibur site this week entitled Bank of Israel: Entering Workforce Does Not Ensure Escape from Poverty. The article tries to make the case that, for chareidim in Israel, leaving welfare is a bad thing and that families that do leave welfare do not end up better off financially.
The article quotes MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (the Knesset Finance Committee Chairman) who states:
"The country is lying to its citizens. Once again it has been shown that leaving the ranks of welfare recipients and joining the job market does not change the situation and people who work very hard for their living are unable to make ends meet."
He also goes on to say (emphasis mine):
"Emerging from the cycle of poverty requires an ability to get accepted to one of the positions that brings in tens and hundreds of thousands of shekels per month. Going to work solves nothing; that's all nonsense. In the State of Israel, today someone who wants to get out of the cycle of poverty has to network with the elites and the power centers just to get a decent salary that will really enable him to make a respectable living."
In other words, according to Rabbi Gafni, working is worthless. We're all better off just increasing welfare payments to people so that they can sustain themselves. I don't know if his comment that you need "tens and hundreds of thousands of shekels" of shekels per month to get out of poverty is accurate (it sounds high to me), but let's say, for the moment, that he's correct (given chareidi family sizes). Assuming a shekel is worth about a quarter (it's actually a bit more right now), that's the equivalent of saying that you need "twenty five hundreds to twenty five thousands dollars per month" to escape poverty. Of course, jobs paying twenty five grand a month are scarce... I don't have one, nor do the vast majority of people in the U.S. But what Rabbi Gafni is missing (or, IMHO, purposely avoiding) is that people on welfare, when they enter the workforce, generally start by talking entry-level jobs that are meant for unskilled workers. As their skills and experience increase, workers will be able to begin commanding higher salaries. When I started working, I was earning very, very little. However, now that I've been working for quite a few years and have invested in some training and education, I now command a much higher salary. Had I said, twenty years ago, that it doesn't pay to work because I can't get my present salary, I would have been an idiot. Very few people get to start at the top... most of us have to work our way up through the ranks, just like everyone else. That means you "pay your dues" by working for a while at low wages and then, with hard work, experience and a bit of Siyata D'Shmaya (Divine Providence), you will begin to earn better wages.
Of course, all this is predicated on one assumption -- that the person is employable and has job skills that he can bring to the market. Rabbi Gafni makes the following observation concerning the ability to earn a salary (again, emphasis mine):
"The problem is especially acute in the chareidi public. The state does not recognize the years of yeshiva and seminary study as it recognizes the years of study of its secular citizens. As a result both husband and wife who work earn paltry salaries, and are unable to extract the family from the cycle of poverty. On the other hand there are people earning as much as an entire neighborhood."
And here, Rabbi Gafni has the solution to the problem staring him in the face and he willfully chooses to ignore it. The problem, very simply, is education. When people are not educated with any skills (other than being a rebbe/teacher), there is little chance that they will be able to command a "good salary" when they enter the workforce. In order to command a "good salary," a worker has to be able to show that s/he will add at least that much value to the enterprise and have skills that differentiate him/herself from the other people seeking employment. Almost anyone off the street can answer a phone or man a cash register -- and so those jobs pay very little. On the other hand, since not everyone can hold the job of a skilled worker (be it computer programmer, plumber, doctor, etc.), people in those professions earn more.
In the ultimate of ironies, Rabbi Gafni even brings an example of a high earner and, instead of recognizing why the person has a high salary, he engages in petty envy. He states (once more, emphasis mine):
"We considered the possibility of setting up a ministerial committee to discuss the inconceivable wage gaps that exist in this country. We need a far-reaching change and a totally new attitude. There are enormous class gaps in this country that will turn into an existential social problem. The salary the CEO of Bank Mizrachi receives is enough to sustain a whole street in Bnei Brak. These class disparities have led to very difficult situations throughout history in all places, and it is imperative that the government comes to its senses on time."
I don't know who the CEO of Bank Mizrachi is, and I certainly don't know his salary or whether or not it can really sustain a street in Bnei Brak. But I do know this: he probably holds an MBA and/or an advanced degree in finance. He probably didn't walk in off the street on his first day of work and say "I want to be the CEO." He probably spent years working at less prestigious jobs, building up his experience. He probably put in a lot of hours over the years and earned the respect of his peers in the banking industry. He probably spent quite a bit of time networking professionally. In other words, the CEO of Bank Mizrachi earns a large salary because he has worked himself up to that point, not because it was magically given to him.
Rabbi Gafni looks at the CEO of Bank Mizrachi and purposely ignores the very reason for his success. Instead of crediting his education, skill and hard work, he says that you have to "network with the elites and the power centers" to get a decent job. As if anyone could get a CEO job (or any job that requires skills) just simply by knowing an "elite" or someone in a "power center." He purposely (IMHO) ignores the importance of education and job skills and says that it's better to simply sit back, give up on any chance for developing job skills and get a welfare check from the government.
I find it utterly ironic that Rabbi Gafni is complaining about poverty in the chareidi community when it's attitudes like his that are the chief reason for it. When school systems are purposely designed NOT to teach any job skills and the society is set up to actively discourage getting an education that will lead to such skills, there can be little doubt that the outcome will be continued poverty. In short, Rabbi Gafni is like someone who ensures that there are no firefighters and then complains when his house burns down and no one was there to put out the fire.