Social protection statistics

Data extracted in June 2016. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: May 2017.

This article analyses recent statistics on social protection in the European Union (EU). Social protection encompasses interventions from public or private bodies intended to relieve households and individuals of the burden of a defined set of risks or needs, provided that there is neither a simultaneous reciprocal nor an individual arrangement involved.

Table 1: Expenditure on social protection, 2003–13
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_sum)
Figure 1: Expenditure on social protection per inhabitant, 2013
Source: Eurostat (tps00100)
Figure 2: Difference between gross and net social protection expenditure, 2012
Source: Eurostat (spr_net_ben)
Figure 3: Gross and net expenditure on social protection benefits, 2012
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_net_ben)
Figure 4: Structure of social protection expenditure, EU-28, 2012 (1)
(% of total expenditure)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_sum)
Figure 5: Expenditure on pensions, 2013
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_pens)
Figure 6: Total pension expenditure per beneficiary by type of pension, EU-28, 2012 (1)
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)
Figure 7: Total pension expenditure per beneficiary for old age pensions, EU-28, 2013 (1)
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)
Figure 8: Aggregate replacement ratio, 2014 (1)
Source: Eurostat (ilc_pnp3)
Figure 9: Expenditure on care for the elderly, 2013
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_fol)
Figure 10: Social protection receipts, EU-28, 2012 (1)
(% of total receipts)
Source: Eurostat (spr_rec_sumt)
Figure 11: Social protection receipts, 2013 (1)
Source: Eurostat (spr_rec_sumt)

Main statistical findings

Recent developments in social protection expenditure

As the impact of the financial and economic crisis was felt across the EU-28, expenditure on social protection relative to gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 2.8 percentage points between 2008 and 2009. This increase reflected a 4.3 % increase in overall social protection expenditure (in current prices), combined with a fall in GDP (-5.7 %). In 2010 and 2011, the value of social protection expenditure increased by 3.8 % and 1.8 % respectively; current price GDP grew at a faster pace, resulting in the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP falling by 0.2 and 0.4 percentage points in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, there was a change in developments, as social protection expenditure increased by 3.3 % compared with GDP growth of 1.9 %, resulting in a 0.4 percentage point increase in the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP, such that it stood at 28.6 % in the EU-28 and was 2.6 percentage points above its 2008 level (26.0 %).

Among the EU Member States, the level of social protection expenditure in relation to GDP in 2013 was highest in France (33.7 %) and Denmark (33.0 %), while Greece (2012 data), the Netherlands, Finland, Belgium and Sweden also reported ratios of 30.0 % or more. By contrast, social protection expenditure represented less than 20.0 % of GDP in Malta, Slovakia, Poland (2012 data), Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania and Latvia where the lowest share was registered, at 14.4 %; Turkey showed an even lower ratio, 14.1 %.

In Greece, expenditure on social protection relative to GDP in 2012 remained 6.3 percentage points higher than it had been in 2008, which was the largest increase since 2008 among the EU Members States, just ahead of the 6.1 point increase in Finland between 2008 and 2013. The Netherlands, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Slovenia all recorded increases in the range of 4.0–5.0 percentage points during the period 2008–13. By contrast, in Lithuania and Hungary this ratio was lower in 2013 than it had been in 2008; this was also the case in Poland (2012 data).

Adjustment for price level differences

The use of a purchasing power standard (PPS) facilitates a comparison of the level of social protection expenditure per inhabitant between countries, taking account of differences in price levels (see Figure 1). The highest level of expenditure on social protection per inhabitant in 2013 was registered for Luxembourg (14.7 thousand PPS per inhabitant), followed some way behind by Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Finland where social protection was more than 9.0 thousand PPS per inhabitant. By contrast, expenditure in Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania was 2.5 thousand PPS per inhabitant or less. These disparities between EU Member States are partly related to different levels of wealth, but may also reflect differences in social protection systems, demographic trends, unemployment rates and other social, institutional and economic factors.

Comparison of gross and net benefits

Differences in the ways in which tax and benefit systems interact have important implications for the comparability of social protection expenditure among the EU Member States. The difference between gross and net social protection expenditure in 2012 was equivalent to 2.2 % of GDP in the EU-28, but there was a significant variation between Member States. The largest differences — as a percentage of GDP — tended to be concentrated in those Member States which generally had higher ratios of gross expenditure to GDP (see Figure 2). As such, a comparison of the ratio of net expenditure to GDP shows less disparity among Member States than an analysis based on gross expenditure.

When expenditure on social protection is expressed in relation to GDP, the difference between the highest and lowest spending EU Member States was 19.3 percentage points for gross expenditure (Denmark 33.1 % and Latvia 13.8 %) compared with 17.5 percentage points for net expenditure (Ireland 30.8 % and Latvia 13.3 %) (see Figure 3). The ranking order of Member States also varied significantly, depending on whether gross or net expenditure was being considered. For example, the Netherlands had the third highest level of gross expenditure among the Members States but fell to 11th place when Member States were ranked on net expenditure.

Analysis of benefits

Social protection benefits made up 96.2 % of the EU-28’s social protection expenditure in 2012; the remaining share covered administration costs and other expenditure (see Figure 4). Old age and sickness/healthcare benefits together accounted for 66.3 % of total social protection expenditure while benefits related to family/children, disability, survivors and unemployment ranged between 5.4 % and 8.1 % each; housing and social exclusion benefits not elsewhere classified accounted for the remaining 2.0 % and 1.9 % respectively.

Expenditure on pensions

Expenditure on pensions across the EU-28 was equivalent to 12.8 % of GDP in 2012. In 2013, among the EU Member States it ranged from a high of 16.5 % in Italy to a low of 6.8 % in Ireland, with the 2012 value for Greece (no data available for 2013) above this range at 17.7 % (see Figure 5).

Pension expenditure per beneficiary (of at least one pension) varies between the different types of pensions (see Figure 6). The aggregate expenditure per beneficiary on pensions relating to old age was EUR 13.0 thousand in the EU-28 in 2012. A higher average expenditure was recorded for anticipated old age pensions at EUR 15.0 thousand per beneficiary. This may appear counter-intuitive, given that benefits for early retirees are typically reduced to compensate for the extension of the period over which the pension is to be paid. Anticipated pensions are, however, more likely to be contribution-based pensions, which tend to offer higher levels of benefits than non-contributory pensions. Furthermore, it is possible that some individuals, who have made a higher total amount of contributions over their working lives and are thus entitled to relatively higher pensions, may be more likely to make a claim prior to reaching retirement age because they meet minimum contribution requirements (where applicable), and are therefore more likely to be willing to accept reduced benefits. By contrast, benefits for early retirement linked to a reduced capacity to work averaged EUR 10.3 thousand per beneficiary, somewhat lower than the average for old age pensions. Expenditure on partial pensions, meanwhile, averaged just EUR 3.2 thousand per beneficiary, lower than any other type of pension. This is to be expected, given that recipients of these types of pensions are still receiving some income from employment.

It is important to note that these figures on pension expenditure per beneficiary do not necessarily reflect the level or adequacy of individual old age pensions. The figures are based on aggregates of expenditure and the number of beneficiaries of a wide range of types of pensions available within each EU Member State, granted under different circumstances and serving various distinct purposes. Invariably, different pension schemes provide different levels of benefits. The typical combinations of pensions in each Member State will have a significant influence on the figures recorded at an aggregate level. Furthermore, the figures are based on gross expenditure and do not take into account the effect of taxes and social contributions (where relevant), which varies both between and within Member States. For example, while in one Member State all pensions may be tax free, in another, taxes may be applied to particular types of pensions.

Pension expenditure per beneficiary (of at least one pension) for old age pensions (the most common type of pension) varies considerably between countries, ranging, in 2013, from EUR 1.7 thousand per year in Bulgaria to EUR 24.6 thousand in Luxembourg (see Figure 7). Comparing the data in terms of purchasing power standards (PPS) reduces somewhat the variance across EU Member States.

Average (median) pension levels for 65 to 74 year-olds across the EU-28 are lower than average earnings for those aged 50 to 59 in 2014 (see Figure 8). This was particularly the case in Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland, where pensions represented between 38 % and 40 % of the average earnings among those aged 50 to 59. By contrast, this ratio — known as the aggregate replacement ratio — was particularly high in Luxembourg (85 %) and was also relatively high in France (69 %). Low aggregate replacement ratios may reflect low coverage and/or low income replacement from pension schemes within current pension systems, as well as incomplete careers or an under-declaration of earnings.

Expenditure on care for the elderly

Expenditure on care for the elderly covers care allowance, accommodation, and assistance in carrying out daily tasks. Across the EU-28, this expenditure accounted for 0.5 % of GDP in 2012. In Sweden, the ratio for this type of expenditure to GDP in 2013 was 2.2 %, between four and five times as high as the EU-28 average in 2012. Expenditure on care for the elderly was less than 0.1 % of GDP in Bulgaria, Germany, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Romania (see Figure 9).

Social protection receipts

An analysis of social protection receipts across the EU-28 in 2012 shows that the majority of receipts could be attributed to general government contributions (40.5 %) and employers’ social contributions (35.3 %), while around one fifth (20.1 %) of social protection receipts in the EU-28 were social contributions paid by protected persons (see Figure 10).

The structure of receipts used to finance social protection varies: three groups of EU Member States can be identified (see Figure 11). A first group covers Member States in which government contributions are the largest component of receipts: Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In six of these Member States government contributions accounted for half or more of all receipts and they accounted for more than three fifths of receipts in Ireland (63.4 %) and more than three-quarters in Denmark (75.6 %).

In the remaining Member States social contributions — from employers and from the protected persons — represented the largest component of receipts. These can be divided between those where actual or imputed employers’ social contributions accounted for two thirds or more of all social contributions: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Spain, France, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. In the final group of Member States, employers’ social contributions accounted for less than two thirds of all social contributions: Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Austria, the Netherlands and Slovenia.

Note that in most member States other receipts tend to be relatively insignificant: they only contribute more than 10 % of total receipts in Greece, the Netherlands and Poland.

Among non-member countries shown in Figure 11, government contributions were the largest component of receipts in Iceland and Norway. Social contributions accounted for more than half of receipts in Switzerland, Serbia and Turkey, with employers’ social contributions accounting for less than two thirds of social contributions.

Data sources and availability

Data on social protection expenditure and receipts are drawn up according to the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS) methodology; this system has been designed to allow a comparison of social protection flows between EU Member States.

In April 2007, a legal basis was established for the provision of ESSPROS with the delivery of data to start from reference year 2006, as provided by the European Parliament and Regulation (EC) No 458/2007; this was later supplemented by four European Commission implementing Regulations: Regulation (EC) No 1322/2007, Regulation (EC) No 10/2008, Regulation (EU) No 110/2011 and Regulation (EU) No 263/2011.

Social protection expenditure

Expenditure on social protection includes: social benefits, administration costs (which represent the costs charged to the scheme for its management and administration) and other expenditure (which consists of miscellaneous expenditure by social protection schemes, principally, payment of property income).

Social protection benefits are direct transfers, in cash or in kind, by social protection schemes to households and individuals; the purpose of the transfers is to relieve the recipients of the burden of one or more of the defined risks or needs. Social benefits are paid to households by social security funds, other government units, non-profit institutions serving households (NPISHs), employers administering unfunded social insurance schemes, insurance enterprises, or other institutional units administering privately funded social insurance schemes. Social benefits are recorded without deduction of taxes or other compulsory levies payable by recipients.

Social protection benefits are classified according to eight social protection functions (which represent a set of risks or needs):

  • sickness/healthcare benefits — including paid sick leave, medical care and the provision of pharmaceutical products;
  • disability benefits — including disability pensions and the provision of goods and services (other than medical care) to the disabled;
  • old age benefits — including old age pensions and the provision of goods and services (other than medical care) to the elderly;
  • survivors’ benefits — including income maintenance and support in connection with the death of a family member, such as a survivors’ pensions;
  • family/children benefits — including support (except healthcare) in connection with the costs of pregnancy, childbirth, childbearing and caring for other family members;
  • unemployment benefits — including vocational training financed by public agencies;
  • housing benefits — including interventions by public authorities to help households meet the cost of housing;
  • social exclusion benefits not elsewhere classified — including income support, rehabilitation of alcohol and drug abusers and other miscellaneous benefits (except healthcare).

The pensions aggregate comprises part of periodic cash benefits under the disability, old age, survivors and unemployment functions. It is defined as the sum of the following social benefits: disability pensions, early-retirement benefits due to reduced capacity to work, old age pensions, anticipated old age pensions, partial pensions, survivors’ pensions, and early-retirement benefits for labour market reasons (see Social protection statistics - pension expenditure and pension beneficiaries)

The first formal data collection for net social protection expenditure took place in 2012 for the reference year 2010. A so-called ‘restricted approach’ is used which means that it is strictly limited to measuring the impact of the fiscal system on the gross cash benefits reported in the ESSPROS core system (benefits in kind are not covered). It does not, therefore, take full account of tax reliefs for social purposes which reduce the amount of taxes paid on other (non-benefit) income or which may be granted to persons who do not receive any (cash) benefits. Such reliefs are taken into account only in relation to the extent to which they reduce the amount of taxes normally payable on cash benefits. Similarly, tax reliefs for social purposes which reduce indirect taxes are not accounted for. The full value of such tax reliefs would only be addressed by the ‘enlarged’ approach (enlarged because the population of beneficiaries is larger). More information is available in an article on net expenditure.

Aggregate replacement ratio

The aggregate replacement ratio is compiled as the ratio between gross retirement benefits and gross earnings. It is defined as median individual gross pension income of those aged 65–74 relative to median individual gross earnings from work of those aged 50–59; it is expressed in percentage terms. These data are not part of the European system of integrated social protection statistics and are collected as part of the EU’s statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC).

Social protection receipts

Schemes responsible for providing social protection are financed in different ways. Social protection receipts comprise social security contributions paid by employers and protected persons, contributions by general government, and other receipts from a variety of sources (for example, interest, dividends, rent and claims against third parties). Social contributions by employers are all costs incurred by employers to secure entitlement to social benefits for their employees, former employees and their dependants; they can be paid by resident or non-resident employers. They include all payments by employers to social protection institutions (actual contributions) and social benefits paid directly by employers to employees (imputed contributions). Social contributions made by protected persons comprise contributions paid by employees, by the self-employed and by pensioners and other persons.

Implementation of ESA 2010 and provisional data

The implementation of the new European System of National and Regional Accounts (ESA 2010) to replace the previous manual (ESA 1995) is an ongoing process. Even though the ESSPROS manual has not been revised accordingly, many concepts used in ESSPROS are based on national accounts. As a consequence ESSPROS results may be indirectly affected by the implementation of ESA 2010. The revision of ESSPROS data to take into account the new national accounts methodology took place for a large majority of EU Member States during the collection of data for the 2013 reference period.

Some data for Greece related to recent years are provisional. In addition, ELSTAT (the Greek statistical office) has indicated that data on expenditure and receipts for the main pension schemes are subject to an on-going revision process which might have an impact on data going back to 2001.


Social protection systems are generally well-developed in the EU: they are designed to protect people (to some degree) against the risks and needs associated with unemployment, parental responsibilities, sickness/healthcare and invalidity, the loss of a spouse or parent, old age, housing and social exclusion (not elsewhere classified).

Pension systems can play a role in allowing beneficiaries to maintain living standards they enjoyed in the later years of their working lives. However, as Europe’s population is becoming progressively older, the main challenge social protection systems are starting to face is related to their financing, as the proportion of older persons grows while the number of persons of working age decreases.

The main policy framework in this domain concerns the open method of coordination for social protection and social inclusion, which aims to promote social cohesion and equality, through adequate, accessible and financially sustainable social protection systems and social inclusion policies. A Communication from the European Commission titled Working together, working better: a new framework for the open coordination of social protection and inclusion policies in the European Union (COM(2005) 706 final) outlines the objectives, which include:

  • making a decisive impact on the eradication of poverty and social exclusion;
  • providing adequate and sustainable pensions;
  • ensuring accessible, high-quality and sustainable healthcare and long-term care.

The organisation and financing of social protection systems is the responsibility of each of the EU Member States. The model used in each Member State is therefore somewhat different, while the EU plays a coordinating role to ensure that people who move across borders continue to receive adequate protection. The EU seeks to promote actions among the Member States to combat poverty and social exclusion, and to reform social protection systems on the basis of policy exchanges and mutual learning. This policy is known as the social protection and social inclusion process — it underpins the Europe 2020 strategy and will play an important role as the EU seeks to become a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth sets targets (among others) to lift at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and social exclusion and to increase employment of the population aged 20–64 to 75 %.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables


Social protection expenditure (spr_expend)
Social protection receipts (spr_receipts)
Pensions beneficiaries (spr_pension)
Net social protection benefits (spr_net_ben)

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel)

Other information

  • Regulation (EC) No 458/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 April 2007 on the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS).
  • Commission Regulation (EC) No 1322/2007 of 12 November 2007 implementing Regulation (EC) No 458/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS) as regards the appropriate formats for transmission, results to be transmitted and criteria for measuring quality for the ESSPROS core system and the module on pension beneficiaries.
  • Commission Regulation (EC) 10/2008 of 8 January 2008 implementing Regulation (EC) No 458/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European system of integrated social protection statistics (ESSPROS) as regards the definitions, detailed classifications and updating of the rules for dissemination for the ESSPROS core system and the module on pension beneficiaries.
  • Commission Regulation (EU) No 110/2011 of 8 February 2011 concerning the appropriate formats for the transmission of data, the results to be transmitted and the criteria for measuring quality for the ESSPROS module on net social protection benefits.