Stricter conditions for social benefits

In February 2004, the Slovak government tightened up the conditions for payment of various social benefits. Financial support is now linked to unemployed people’s efforts to find work, while benefits have been cut. Groups hit by the new regulations have organised protest actions, prompting the government to address their complaints.

In order to reduce public expenditure and motivate people actively to seek employment rather than live on social benefits, parliament has recently approved several changes to the social security system. Under the previous law on social assistance, 'needy' citizens could obtain a decent income from social benefits. Many long-term unemployed people fell into this category. There are currently about 450,000 unemployed in Slovakia, about half of whom receive social benefits, placing a major burden on the public purse. From 1 February 2004, stricter conditions have been imposed on social benefits and the level of payments has been reduced. For example, the previous system gave a large family - with three or more children - an income close to 50% of the national average: under the new system this will be cut to about 25% of average income.

The groups affected criticised the reform and some of them, especially the Roma minority, began to organise protest actions in mid-February. In some regions with a large Roma population, meetings were organised demanding a halt to implementation of the new social benefit rules. Some people reportedly looted grocery stores, declaring they had no money to buy food for themselves and their children. The police arrested many activists and more than 100 were charged. These actions started before social benefit cuts had actually been made - the first reduced social benefit payments were made in in March. Roma representatives threatened to blockade main roads and border-crossing points if the government did not take action to address their concerns. The government evaluated implementation of the social benefit reform and decided to adopt a number of measures immediately. A 12-point package, including legislative changes, was proposed by the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Ministerstvo práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny Slovenskej republiky, MPSVR SR) and approved by the government. Most were rapidly implemented. The social benefit reform was not, according to the government, designed to target the Roma population, but they have probably been hardest hit. The government did not alter the principles of the reform, but adjusted some limits and ceilings to make the new system more amenable for the most vulnerable social groups.

The groups affected have declared that they do not want to live on social benefits and would accept work if they could get it. The problem is that there are not enough jobs in every region; in addition, the most vulnerable social groups are usually poorly educated and lack skills. In an effort to address this, a number of public works projects have been instigated: municipalities organising such jobs receive state subsidies. Unemployed people must work at least 10 hours a week to become entitled to so-called 'activation pay' on top of their social benefit. These measures increase the social benefit payment from SKK 1,000 to SKK 1,500 (about EUR 37) per month. According to the available information, more than 60,000 people expressed an interest in public works employment in March and April 2004. However, this figure is far below the estimated 150,000-200,000 people affected by the changes in the social benefit system. Other measures include subsidising employers (depending on the regional unemployment rate) to create new jobs for long-term unemployed people. Some primary schools will also receive subsidies for free study materials and meals for children from poor families. Needy children will also have access to social scholarships to secondary schools, and so on.

These measures seem to have worked because the situation in the regions has stabilised and there have been no more protests.

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