Europe’s social-protection schemes are full of holes, affecting the most vulnerable most—but they can be fixed.
To understand what is wrong with social protection in Europe, picture watering a garden with a watering-can full of holes. No matter how full the watering-can, huge amounts of water intended for the plants will be wasted, leaving the flowers to wilt.
There are similarly wasteful ‘leakages’ in Europe’s generous social-protection schemes, with an astounding number of people missing out on the benefits intended for them. One study put the proportion not gaining access to the benefits to which they are entitled at above 40 per cent for most European Union social-protection schemes considered.
As I outlined in a report on ‘non-take-up’ to the United Nations Human Rights Council, there are many reasons for failure to claim benefits. One of the most common, particularly in Europe, is simply lack of knowledge of the benefit or of eligibility for it. Others include complicated or costly application processes, inability to apply online or fear of perceived stigma.
Of course, the EU still scores well in comparison with other regions: over 84 per cent of people are covered by at least one benefit, compared with 40 per cent across the Arab world or 17 per cent in Africa. Yet unless this leakage is addressed, those who need social protection the most—with poor internet access or digital literacy, strained relationships to social agencies or a dearth of information about complex schemes—will be left out. The ability of these schemes to eradicate poverty is hence significantly diminished.
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Fortunately, non-take-up—previously little discussed, let alone measured—is finally getting the attention it deserves. In January, a Council of the EU recommendation on adequate minimum income put non-take-up front and centre.
The recommendation calls on member states to ensure full take-up of minimum-income schemes, with actions listed ranging from reducing administrative burdens to combating the unconscious bias surrounding poverty. This list could easily be applied to other social-protection programmes—disability benefits, family allowances and so on—and represents a hugely encouraging step.
In July, a seminar on non-take-up was organised by the International Social Security Association. It was awash with promising examples of what is being done in Europe to make sure benefits reach the people they are designed to protect.
Take Lithuania. Since 2021, old-age pensioners and persons with disabilities have been eligible for a ‘single person’s benefit’. Yet, unaware the benefit existed and that they were entitled, unsure how to submit an application or unable to use online services, more than half of the initial 60,000 eligible individuals failed to apply. To simplify the process, the country’s social-security agency decided to use population databases to identify eligible individuals and automate payments—resulting in a huge increase in take-up.
A similar story was told by Malta, where an ‘in-work benefit’ supplements the income of working parents. The benefit was automated in 2022 so individuals would no longer have to file a claim—almost quadrupling take-up from 6,000 to 23,000 beneficiaries.
In Ireland and Finland social-security administrations are working with claimants to make the language on application forms less complex. Involving people in poverty in service design is a simple, effective way to make those services work for them—something I have been fervently advocating as the UN’s poverty expert.
Room for hope
There are still challenges. While automation is clearly part of the solution, individuals from vulnerable groups—undocumented migrants, individuals without a fixed address or informal workers—may not be on government databases and so risk exclusion. And the tendency to move services online should not come at the expense of in-person communication with those who lack digital skills or access to the internet.
On the whole, however, recent developments—particularly the importance the council recommendation attributes to combating non-take-up—give much room for hope. It is only once all the holes have been plugged that social protection in Europe will be able to achieve its full potential. Given it is one of the best tools we have in the fight against poverty, that is a job worth doing.
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Olivier De Schutter is United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. A law professor at Université catholique de Louvain and Sciences Po, he was previously special rapporteur on the right to food and a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.