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European benefit rights scaled back in recent decades

The rights of people entitled to state benefits in Europe have been scaled back over the last 26 years and the level of social security benefits has fallen.

Researcher Minna van Gerven argues that this is the result of ongoing legislative reforms within the welfare state. On 17 October she will be awarded her doctorate at Tilburg University’s Faculty of Social Sciences in the Netherlands.

The cornerstones of our welfare state, such as benefit schemes for the unemployed, the disabled and low income households, are far less static than we tend to assume. Legislation in a range of European countries has undergone frequent changes in recent decades and national governments have been able to introduce far-reaching reforms in the field of social provisions. Minna van Gerven shows that a person’s capacity to work is playing an increasingly central role in the issuing of benefits: the focus is on whether a person can return to work and how this can be achieved as quickly as possible. Meanwhile the level of benefits has decreased and payments are being targeted more towards specific groups such as the unemployed and those with a complete incapacity to work.

Van Gerven conducted her research in Great Britain, Finland and the Netherlands and compared the trends in these countries over a period of 26 years. She studied the national legislation and benefit programmes in all three countries, exploring issues such as the duration of the right to benefit and the amount paid in benefit, as well as the changing criteria for accepting work and the relevance of a person's work history.

Van Gerven demonstrates that the reforms are leading to a greater degree of individualization, since rights and obligations are being linked to the background of the person entitled to benefit (most notably, their work history and their demonstrable efforts to find work). This development has occurred at the expense of benefit recipients as a whole. Furthermore, it has adversely affected the amount paid in benefits.

Van Gerven also describes the differences between the countries she studied. In the British system, for example, benefit schemes have been scaled back to a minimum at basic income level. In the Netherlands, benefits have become increasingly dependent on a person's work history and their reintegration into the job market. The Finnish system of basic benefit payments has been kept intact as much as possible, although work-related criteria also play a role in determining benefit entitlement. This makes it clear that developments within the European welfare state are following a trend towards limiting the rights of those entitled to benefit while stepping up their obligations.

Minna van Gerven (1974, Finland) has completed her doctorate at the Department of Sociology at Tilburg University’s Faculty of Social Sciences in the Netherlands. She studied social policy at the University of Tampere (in Finland) and is currently working as a researcher for AIAS (Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Labour Studies).

Corine Schouten | alfa
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