Europe’s social protection systems provide an essential safety net for people who face challenges like unemployment, ill health, poverty or old age.
The delivery of social protection varies across the European Union, but it usually takes the form of welfare benefits to cover things like unemployment, sickness and maternity, invalidity, the demands of old age, and family expenses.
Whatever the benefit, these payments can play a key role in ensuring that people living in poverty get a chance to live a dignified life.
What is more, social protection systems have been deployed to keep people from falling into poverty due to the recent recession, which has left thousands of Europeans without a job or with reduced incomes.
Work and support
The EU is committed to promoting closer cooperation between Member States as they set about modernising their social protection systems to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.
This includes sharpening up the role social protection plays in combating poverty and social exclusion. In 2008, the European Commission asked Member States to harness these systems as a means of developing policies to stimulate “active inclusion”.
Active inclusion strategies centre around getting as many people as possible into the labour market while making sure those who are unable to work receive decent social support so they can lead fulfilling lives.
Active inclusion, as promoted by the Commission, is based around three common principles:
Providing access to quality services plays a vital role in supporting the social and economic inclusion of groups at risk.
For example, good quality childcare and training services can help poorer single parents find a way back to the world of work. Meanwhile, good quality housing and health support can make huge difference to the quality of life of people with disabilities and others who are simply unable to work.
Combating health gaps
Health is a key issue in terms of delivering social protection and access to quality services, especially for people living in poverty. This is partly due to the prevalence of the ‘health gap’ that exists across society.
The level of health inequalities between different social groups and people living in different parts of Europe remains high. In fact the gap in life expectancy across the EU can reach up to eight years for women and 14 years for men, depending on the social group they belong to.
Health inequalities are the result of a mix of factors such as accessibility to decent healthcare, educational attainment, income levels, living and working conditions, and lifestyle behaviours (such as the choices people make in relation to diet, smoking and drinking).
Put simply, people with a poor education, low occupational status and limited incomes tend to have more health problems and die younger than their better-off contemporaries. All of this means that individuals living at risk of poverty are most likely to find themselves at the bottom of life expectancy league tables.
In October 2009, the Commission announced a series of measures to help Member States and other stakeholders tackle health inequalities.
Europe as a whole must improve its knowledge and understanding of the health gap issue, devise better methods for monitoring and data collection, and carefully assess how EU policies can be aligned to deliver better health outcomes.
Closing the gap will involve focusing more help on the regions and communities that are lagging behind.
To help disadvantaged people catch up, Member States should focus on providing better health services to those who need them the most, design better health promotion and health protection initiatives, and find ways to improve living and working conditions.
The Commission recently published its ‘Second Biennial Report on social services of general interest’. The report covers issues such as health and social services from an employment and economic perspective, as well as attempts to improve the quality of social services across Europe.
For more information
Social protection and social inclusion
EU policy on active inclusion
Tackling health inequalities in the EU
The Second Biennial Report