Some people receive benefits they are not entitled to. However, the opposite problem seems much more common: many people in Europe do not receive the benefits they are entitled to under national laws. Public debate has focused on the first issue, while the second has been largely ignored. Eurofound’s research on ‘access to benefits’ addresses this deficiency.
Some estimates: In France, 53-67% of people entitled to financial assistance to pay for private supplementary health insurance did not receive the benefit in 2011. In Finland, more than half (55%) of those entitled to social assistance did not to receive it in 2010, and, regarding German social assistance, the estimate is 34-43% (2008). For a similar benefit in Slovakia, the estimate is 79% (2009). In Bulgaria, 34-39% did not to receive the child allowance they were entitled to in 2007. In the UK, 16-22% did not receive the housing benefit they were entitled to in 2010-2011.
More qualitative evidence from Eurofound’s forthcoming report confirms that the issue affects many people in vulnerable situations across Member States.
Is this gap between benefit receipt and entitlements a problem?
Non-take-up of social benefits may seem good for public purses. Furthermore, the term ‘non-take-up’ suggests that people decide themselves not to take up a benefit. Why would that be a problem?
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Non-take-up is indeed not always equally problematic, for example when relatively high-income groups choose not to claim very small benefits. However, non-take-up may not be a choice, or people may feel ashamed in claiming benefits. Regardless of these considerations, non-take-up can be problematic for the following reasons:
- benefits fail to fulfill their aims if they do not reach their target groups.
- This is a problem for governments. A benefit may be conditional on claimants demonstrating they are actively looking for a job. If the benefit is not taken up, such ‘activation measures’ will not succeed in contributing to economic inclusion and competitive economies.
- It is also a problem for the EU. For example, benefits can contribute to reductions in poverty and social exclusion as foreseen in the Europe 2020 strategy. They can also stabilise economies by underpinining household incomes, but only if they are effective.
- it is at odds with fairness, core of the Juncker Commission’s strategic vision, when some people are able to access the benefits they are entitled to while others are not;
- if benefits fail to reach people in need, there may be higher costs to society in the long run. Benefits can facilitate access to basic services and goods (food for households, including children, access to healthcare, medicines and housing), and can keep lives on track by swiftly providing support after a life event such as job loss or divorce, for example preventing mental health conditions.
In line with these arguments, the European Commission in its proposed Council Decision on ‘Guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States’ (European Commission, 2 March 2015) states that
[s]ocial protection systems should be designed in a way that facilitate take up of all persons entitled”, contributing to “[e]nsuring fairness, combatting poverty and promoting equal opportunities.
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Why do benefits not reach those who are entiled to them?
In different contexts, similar sets of reasons can explain non-take-up among groups in vulnerable situtions:
- lack of information: unawareness of or misperceptions about the benefit, entitlement or application procedures;
- costly/complex to access: inhibiting complexity of the application procedure, or lack of resources including time, competences to find one’s way through the system, and travel to the welfare or employment office if needed;
- social barriers: stigma – sometimes linked to conditionality or to the application procedure-, pride, or lack of trust in institutions.
How to reduce non-take-up, and administrative cost?
Eurofound’s forthcoming report looks into case studies of initiatives which have sought to reduce non-take-up. They aim to improve administration or information provision.
Some initiatives not only reduce non-take-up, but they also reduce administrative costs by simplifying application procedures. Similarly, improved information provision can also decrease administrative costs, as they not only clarify whether people are entitled to benefits, but also if they are not, thus reducing the number of (and costs of processing) rejections.
The final report of Eurofound’s study will be published here in Autumn 2015. A previous working paper can already be downloaded.