Statistics Explained

Social protection statistics - overview

Data extracted in June 2022.

Planned article update: June 2023.

Highlights

In 2019, expenditure on all types of social protection in the EU was equivalent to 28.1 % of GDP.

In 2019, old age and sickness/healthcare together accounted for close to two thirds (66.9 %) of the EU’s social protection expenditure.

In 2019, expenditure on old age pensions averaged €14 700 per beneficiary in the EU.

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Social protection expenditure, 2019

This article analyses recent [1] statistics on social protection in the European Union (EU). These encompass 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. The most common risks and needs are those associated with: sickness/healthcare; invalidity and disability; old age; parental responsibilities; the loss of a spouse or parent; unemployment; housing; and social exclusion.

Full article

Recent developments in social protection expenditure

In 2019, expenditure on social protection relative to gross domestic product (GDP) was 28.1 % in the EU. Across the EU Member States, this ratio was highest in France (33.6 %), while Denmark (31.3 %), Germany (30.3 %) and Finland (30.0 %) also reported ratios of at least 30.0 %. By contrast, social protection expenditure represented less than 17.0 % of GDP in Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Malta and Romania, with the lowest ratio among the Member States registered in Ireland (13.6 %). Among the non-EU countries Turkey recorded an even lower ratio, at 12.5 %.

In Finland, expenditure on social protection relative to GDP was 1.1 percentage points higher in 2019 than it had been in 2009 (at the low point of the global financial and economic crisis). This was the largest increase recorded among any of the EU Member States during this period, ahead of increases of 1.0 points in Poland, 0.9 points in Italy and 0.8 points in Croatia. Larger increases were recorded among some of the non-EU countries shown in Table 1: 3.2 points in Norway, 2.2 points in Iceland and 1.9 points in Switzerland.

By contrast, a majority of EU Member States recorded lower ratios of social protection expenditure to GDP in 2019 when compared with 2009; this was also the case in Serbia and Turkey. The largest decrease among the Member States was in Ireland, down 11.1 points, reflecting in part GDP developments related to globalisation effects. Elsewhere the largest decreases were 6.0 points in Hungary (in part reflecting a break in series) and 4.5 points in Lithuania. Malta, Denmark, Estonia and Sweden also recorded decreases of at least 2.0 points.

Table 1: Expenditure on social protection, 2009–2019
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_sum)

Social protection expenditure and GDP rates of change

The time series in Figure 1 starts in 2009, when the impact of the global financial and economic crisis was strongly felt: EU GDP (in current prices) contracted by 4.5 %; social protection expenditure increased by 5.6 %; the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP reached 28.8 %. Between 2009 and 2011, the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP fell by 0.6 percentage points as social protection expenditure increased at a slower pace than GDP (which was recovering somewhat from the crisis). Between 2011 and 2013, this pattern reversed and the ratio rose 0.8 percentage points to a high (for the period from 2009 to 2019) of 29.0 %. Between 2013 and 2018, the increases in the level of social protection expenditure were outstripped by the increases in GDP: the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP fell a total of 1.1 points to a low (for the period from 2009 to 2019) of 27.9 %. In 2019, the increase in social protection expenditure was greater than that of GDP for the first time since 2013 and the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP was 28.1 %.

Figure 1: Social protection expenditure, EU, 2009–2019
(%)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_sum) and (nama_10_gdp)

Comparison of gross and net social protection benefits

The specific characteristics of national tax and benefit systems may explain some of the differences in levels of social protection benefits between EU Member States, for example, the taxes and social contributions paid on benefits by beneficiaries and the extent to which social benefits are provided in the form of tax rebates or tax reductions (see the section on Data sources below for more details).

In 2019, the gap between gross and net expenditure on social protection benefits in the EU averaged 2.5 % of GDP. There were greater gaps in some of the EU Member States, with the largest differences – as a percentage of GDP – often recorded for Member States with some of the highest ratios of gross expenditure on social protection relative to GDP (see Figure 2). This was notably the case for the Netherlands (a gap of 5.1 percentage points between gross and net expenditure) and Denmark (4.6 points), both of which had ratios for gross expenditure that were above the EU average.

Figure 2: Gross and net expenditure on social protection benefits, 2019
Source: Eurostat (spr_net_ben)

When expenditure on social protection is expressed in relation to GDP, the difference between the highest and lowest spending EU Member States was 18.2 percentage points for gross expenditure (France 31.3 % and Ireland 13.0 %) compared with 17.0 percentage points for net expenditure (France 29.4 % and Ireland 12.4 %) – see Figure 3 in the article on net expenditure on benefits. The ranking (order) of Member States also varied somewhat, depending on whether gross or net expenditure was being considered. For example, Denmark had the second highest level of gross expenditure (relative to GDP) among the Members States but moved to fifth place when ranked on net expenditure.

Analysis of the structure of social protection expenditure

Social protection benefits made up 95.9 % of the EU’s social protection expenditure in 2019; the remaining share covered administration costs and other expenditure (see Figure 3).

  • Old age and survivors’ benefits together accounted for 44.4 % of total social protection expenditure, with old age benefits the largest part (38.6 % of all expenditure).
  • Sickness/healthcare and disability benefits together accounted for 35.6 %, with sickness/healthcare alone receiving 28.3 % of total expenditure.

As such, the two largest items – old age and sickness/healthcare benefits – together accounted for 66.9 % of total expenditure.

Figure 3: Structure of social protection expenditure, EU, 2019
(% of total expenditure)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_sum)

Expenditure on pensions

Expenditure on pensions across the EU was equivalent to 12.7 % of GDP in 2019. Among the EU Member States, expenditure on pensions relative to GDP was highest in Greece and Italy (both 16.0 %), followed by France (14.8 %).

At the other end of the range, ratios below 8.0 % were recorded in Romania, the three Baltic Member States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Bulgaria and Malta, while the lowest ratio was recorded in Ireland (5.0 %) – see Figure 4.

Figure 4: Expenditure on pensions, 2019
(% of GDP)
Source: Eurostat (spr_exp_pens)

Pension expenditure per beneficiary varies according to the different types of pension (see Figure 5). In 2019, the estimated aggregate expenditure per beneficiary on pensions relating to old age was €14 700 across the EU. This was somewhat lower than the average expenditure recorded for anticipated old age pensions (€15 900 per beneficiary) which in turn was lower than for early retirement (due to a reduced capacity to work) where expenditure averaged €16 900 per beneficiary. Expenditure on partial pensions, meanwhile, averaged just €4 000 per beneficiary, much lower than for any other type of pension; this is to be expected, given that recipients of these types of pensions are also receiving income from employment.

Figure 5: Pension expenditure per beneficiary by type of pension, EU, 2019
(€)
Source: Eurostat (spr_pns_ben) and (spr_exp_pens)

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

In 2019, pension expenditure per beneficiary for old age pensions (the most common type of pension) varied across the EU Member States from €28 700 in Luxembourg to €2 100 in Bulgaria – see Figure 5 in the article on pension expenditure and beneficiaries. Comparing the data in terms of purchasing power standards (PPS) generally reduces the differences between Member States (as it adjusts for different price levels). Average expenditure per beneficiary peaked at 19 900 PPS in Luxembourg, ahead of Austria (19 200 PPS), while the lowest level of pension expenditure per beneficiary was recorded in Bulgaria (4 300 PPS).

Social protection receipts

An analysis of social protection receipts across the EU in 2019 shows that the majority of receipts could be attributed to general government contributions (39.3 %) and employers’ social contributions (35.6 %), while around one fifth (21.8 %) of social protection receipts in the EU were social contributions paid by protected persons (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Social protection receipts, EU, 2019
(% of total receipts)
Source: Eurostat (spr_rec_sumt)

Social protection receipts in the EU grew from €7 100 per inhabitant to €9 100 per inhabitant between 2009 and 2019, as overall receipts rose by a total of 31.1 %. The biggest change in the structure of receipts over this period was in relation to employers’ social contributions, whose share in total receipts fell from 37.3 % in 2009 to 35.6 % by 2019. By contrast, there was an increase in the relative share of general government contributions, from 38.0 % to 39.3 % over the same period.

The structure of receipts used to finance social protection varies: several groups of EU Member States can be identified (see Figure 7).

  • The largest group was composed of 15 Member States where government contributions formed the largest component of receipts in 2019. In Denmark, Malta and Ireland, government contributions accounted for more than half of all receipts (this was also the case in Norway), with this share peaking at nearly four fifths of total receipts in Denmark (79.1 %).
  • In the remaining 12 Member States, social contributions – from employers or from the protected persons – represented the largest component of receipts.
    • In Estonia, Czechia and Slovakia, the contribution from employers to finance social protection accounted for more than half of all receipts, while employers also made the biggest contribution to total receipts in Spain, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Germany.
    • There were two Member States where the highest share of social protection receipts could be attributed to contributions paid by protected persons, namely Slovenia and Romania; in the latter, more than half of all receipts were contributions paid by protected persons.
    • In the Netherlands, the shares of contributions paid by protected persons and contributions from employers were the same and both higher than the share from government.

Note that in most of the EU Member States other receipts tended to be relatively insignificant. They only contributed more than 5.0 % of total social protection receipts in six Member States, and only exceeded 10.0 % in the Netherlands. Relatively high shares for other receipts were observed among non-EU countries in Switzerland and most notably Iceland.

Figure 7: Social protection receipts, 2019
(% of total receipts)
Source: Eurostat (spr_rec_sumt)

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

Data on social protection expenditure and receipts are based on 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 2007, 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.

In 2019, Eurostat released an updated version of the ESSPROS manual and user guidelines, which provides information on compiling and using ESSPROS data correctly.

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 these transfers is to relieve recipients of the burden of one or more of the defined risks or needs. Social protection 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 protection benefits are recorded without the 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 full or partial unemployment benefits as well as 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 (n.e.c.) – 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 for more information).

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 gross cash benefits reported in the ESSPROS core system (benefits in kind are not covered). It does not, therefore, take full account of tax relief 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. These types of relief 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 relief for social purposes which reduce indirect taxes are not accounted for. The full value of such tax relief would only be addressed by the ‘enlarged’ approach (enlarged because the population of beneficiaries is larger). More information is available in an article on Social protection statistics – net expenditure on benefits.

Social protection receipts

Schemes responsible for providing social protection are financed in a variety of different ways. Social protection receipts comprise social security contributions paid by employers and protected persons, contributions by general government, and other receipts from various 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

The European system of national and regional accounts 2010 (ESA 2010) replaced ESA 1995. This change had consequences in relation to ESSPROS results which were indirectly affected by the implementation of ESA 2010. The revision of ESSPROS data to take into account changes to national accounts methodology took place for a large majority of EU Member States during the collection of data for the 2013 reference period.

Context

Social protection systems are generally well-developed across the EU: they are designed to protect (to some degree) people 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, one of the main challenges faced by social protection systems is related to their financing, as the proportion of older persons continues to grow while the share of the population that is of working age decreases.

The organisation and financing of social protection systems is the responsibility of each EU Member State; the models used across Member States are consequently different. 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. The European Commission provides guidance to Member States to modernise their welfare systems through the social investment package.

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 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 European pillar of social rights sets out 20 key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. This forms part of the policy developments related to an economy that works for people, one of the European Commission priorities for the period 2019–2024. The pillar contains three main categories for action, one of which concerns social protection and inclusion and covers the following principles.

  • Childcare and support to children – children have the right to affordable early childhood education and care of good quality; children have the right to protection from poverty; children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the right to specific measures to enhance equal opportunities.
  • Social protection – regardless of the type and duration of their employment relationship, workers, and, under comparable conditions, the self-employed, have the right to adequate social protection.
  • Unemployment benefits – the unemployed have the right to adequate activation support from public employment services to (re)integrate in the labour market and adequate unemployment benefits of reasonable duration, in line with their contributions and national eligibility rules; such benefits shall not constitute a disincentive for a quick return to employment.
  • Minimum income – everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services; for those who can work, minimum income benefits should be combined with incentives to (re)integrate into the labour market.
  • Old age income and pensions – workers and the self-employed in retirement have the right to a pension commensurate to their contributions and ensuring an adequate income; women and men shall have equal opportunities to acquire pension rights; everyone in old age has the right to resources that ensure living in dignity.
  • Health care – everyone has the right to timely access to affordable, preventive and curative health care of good quality.
  • Inclusion of people with disabilities – people with disabilities have the right to income support that ensures living in dignity, services that enable them to participate in the labour market and in society, and a work environment adapted to their needs.
  • Long-term care – everyone has the right to affordable long-term care services of good quality, in particular home-care and community-based services.
  • Housing and assistance for the homeless – access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality shall be provided for those in need; vulnerable people have the right to appropriate assistance and protection against forced eviction; adequate shelter and services shall be provided to the homeless in order to promote their social inclusion.
  • Access to essential services – everyone has the right to access essential services of good quality, including water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications; support for access to such services shall be available for those in need.

A Eurostat scoreboard of key indicators is used to track the employment and social performances of participating EU Member States. The scoreboard serves as a reference to monitor progress and to detect employment and social challenges.

Notes

  1. This article is based on data for the same reference year for both gross and net benefits; data for net benefits are available several months after the data for gross benefits. More recent data for gross benefits can be found in other articles on social protection and in Eurostat’s online database.

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Social protection expenditure (spr_expend)
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Pensions beneficiaries (spr_pension)
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