Ensuring citizens receive social benefits

Across Europe, many people do not receive the social benefits to which they are entitled. Estimates based on a subset of European countries suggest that – for at least one type of benefit – over one-third of those who are entitled to it do not receive it. Non-take-up (or 'non give-out') is an issue for a broad range of benefits and is not restricted to those that are means-tested.

A new report from Eurofound, Access to social benefits: Reducing non-take-up, outlines the scale of non-take-up of social benefits across the EU Member States and looks at the reasons why people don't receive the benefits they are entitled to. It goes on to explore how non take-up can be reduced, presenting evidence from case studies in 10 Member States.

Role of benefits in European policy

The report focuses on those monetary social benefits that support people in vulnerable situations – including benefits related to minimum income, housing, health, old age, heating, children, unemployment, disability and care.

Governments put benefits in place for specific reasons, such as preventing poverty or guaranteeing access to basic goods and services, stabilising the economy and including people socially and economically. Clearly, if benefits do not reach the people they are meant for, they fail to fulfil these aims.

Reducing non-take-up can also contribute to the Europe 2020 employment targets: some benefits are designed to help citizens integrate into the labour market, for instance. If these benefits are not taken-up, they do not have this desired impact.

And reducing non-take-up is in line with the EU’s Social Investment Package: by facilitating access to utilities, food, housing and healthcare, it can prevent greater social and economic costs in the long run.

Why do benefits not reach the intended recipients?

For a number of reasons, benefits don’t always reach the people they are intended for.

  • Citizens may be unaware of the existence of the benefits or their entitlement to the benefits or do not know how to apply for them.
  • The application process may be too complex or time consuming.
  • Social barriers, including a sense of stigma, can stop citizens applying. A lack of trust in the administering institutions can also be a barrier.

Solving the problem

Automatic payment of benefits: Ideally, benefits should be paid automatically, with no need for applications.

Proactive administrative systems: Proactive administrative systems can notify people who are likely to be entitled to a benefit. This includes informing people when certain life events take place that they have become eligible for a particular benefit; notification would also be helpful when entitlement criteria change.

Effective use of ICT systems: Most benefit systems were designed before the widespread use of ICT: rethinking the systems as a whole in the context of ICT can render applications unnecessary or make systems more proactive. Online application procedures can make applications less costly in terms of time and travel, and reduce administrative costs. 

Better-targeted information: Simply informing people about benefits and entitlement criteria is not always enough. They may need information about how and where to apply for specific benefits, or active support with the application process.

Liaison between key actors: By working together, public administration bodies, local service providers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions and employers can support people in taking up their entitlements. If benefits are funded at the national level, local governments have a particular incentive in helping citizens claim their entitlements. 

Involvement of providers of paid services: Social housing bodies, utility suppliers, telecoms companies and health insurance providers should know that their clients may be eligible for social benefits they are not claiming. Addressing non-take-up can prevent arrears, disconnection, eviction and loss of insurance.

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