European social security ‘becoming less pro poor’

A policy shift towards preventing 'benefit dependency' is increasingly undermining the capacity of social security systems in Europe to alleviate poverty, according to a discussion paper from researchers at Antwerp University. The paper highlights both the political and the financial pressures on social transfer arrangements.

Key points

  • We are witnessing an increasing tension in European countries between the three main goals of social security systems – poverty alleviation, securing living standards and prevention. As a consequence, the poverty-reducing capacity of social transfers has come under pressure.
  • In many countries the relative decline in poverty reduction has primarily affected work-poor households. This suggests the pressure on the poverty-alleviation function of social protection is the result of a shift of attention towards preventing 'benefit dependency' on the one hand, and ‘securing living standards’ for working families on the other.
  • Inadequate social protection is also an important factor explaining in-work poverty. In-work poverty is associated not only with low pay but to some extent also with low work-intensity at the household level and with shortcomings in tax and benefit systems.
  • Differences in social redistribution between individual countries are quite considerable. Scandinavian countries continue to provide an example of how low poverty, high employment and economic performance can be combined with strong social redistribution.
  • Although active labour market policies can and should play a crucial role in reducing poverty gaps across Europe, adequate income protection schemes and social redistribution remain important instruments for improving welfare state performance.
  • Some countries achieve much lower poverty rates despite similar social spending levels. The design and structure of social programmes are obviously important, with the result that some states attain greater ‘efficiency’ in terms of poverty risk reduction than others.

Source: Bea Cantillon, Natascha Van Mechelen, Olivier Pintelon and Aaron Van den Heede, Why Has Social Security Become Less Pro Poor?, ImPRovE Discussion Paper 13/05, Centre for Social Policy (Antwerp University)

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