Social protection statistics - overview
Data extracted in September 2020.
Planned article update: May 2022.
In 2017, expenditure on all types of social protection in the EU-27 was equivalent to 28 % of GDP.
In 2017, old age and sickness/healthcare together accounted for close to two thirds (66 %) of the EU-27’s social protection expenditure.
In 2017, expenditure on old age pensions averaged EUR 13 983 per beneficiary in the EU-27.
Social protection expenditure, 2017 (% of GDP)
This article analyses recent  statistics on social protection in the European Union (EU); this 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. 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.
In 2017, expenditure on social protection relative to gross domestic product (GDP) was 28.1 % in the EU-27. Across the EU Member States, this ratio was highest in France (34.1 %), while Denmark and Finland also reported ratios above 30.0 % and Germany (29.7 %) just below this level. By contrast, social protection expenditure represented less than 17.0 % of GDP in Bulgaria, Malta, Estonia, Lithuania, Ireland and Latvia, with the lowest ratio among the Member States registered in Romania (14.4 %); Turkey recorded an even lower ratio, at 12.3 %.
In Finland, expenditure on social protection relative to GDP was 5.6 percentage points higher in 2017 than it had been in 2008 (at the onset 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 a 3.3 point increase in France and a 3.2 point increase in the Netherlands; Norway (6.6 points) and Switzerland (4.7 points) also recorded relatively large increases. By contrast, Lithuania, Malta, Hungary (note there is a break in series) and Ireland each recorded lower ratios of social protection expenditure to GDP in 2017 when compared with 2008; this was also the case in Serbia.
Social protection expenditure and GDP rates of change
EU-27 GDP (in current prices) grew by 6.2 % in 2007 (compared with the year before) and by 3.2 % in 2008 and then contracted sharply in 2009 (down 4.5 %). By contrast, social protection expenditure increased at a relatively stable pace in all three years (up 4.5 %, 5.7 % and 5.7 % respectively). As such, the impact of the global financial and economic crisis was clearly apparent, as the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP increased by 0.6 percentage points between 2007 and 2008 and by a further 2.7 percentage points between 2008 and 2009 to reach 28.8 % in 2009 (see Figure 1).
In 2010 and 2011, the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP fell by 0.1 and 0.4 percentage points, as social protection expenditure increased at a slower pace than GDP (which was recovering somewhat from the crisis). In 2012, this pattern was reversed and in 2013 social protection expenditure also increased at a faster pace than GDP. In the four most recent years for which data are available, GDP and social protection expenditure both increased. The increases in the level of the EU-27’s social protection expenditure were outstripped each year from 2014 to 2017 by the increases in GDP: the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP fell by 0.2, 0.3, 0.1 and 0.4 percentage points in these four years. This relatively sustained fall in the ratio of social protection expenditure to GDP resulted in the 2017 value of this ratio reaching a lower level (28.1 %) in 2017 than in any year since 2008 (when it had been 26.1 %).
Social protection expenditure per inhabitant and as a percentage of GDP
When comparing across EU Member States, there is generally a positive relationship between social protection expenditure expressed relative to GDP and social protection expenditure per inhabitant in purchasing power standards (PPS). Across the EU-27, expenditure per inhabitant in 2017 averaged 8 489 PPS. The use of a series in purchasing power standards tends to reduce the disparities in expenditure per inhabitant between Member States, with the highest level of expenditure per inhabitant in Luxembourg (14 901 PPS) and the lowest in Bulgaria (2 770 PPS); as such, expenditure per inhabitant in the former was 5.4 times as high as in the latter (see Figure 2). Note that social protection expenditure per inhabitant is calculated on the basis of the resident population; therefore, its value may be particularly high for Luxembourg (due to its high proportion of cross-border commuters), with some benefits paid to persons living outside the country (primarily expenditure on healthcare, pensions and family benefits).
Although the EU Member States with the highest levels of social protection expenditure per inhabitant in 2017 tended to have some of the highest ratios of social protection expenditure relative to GDP there were some exceptions. These included the particular case of Luxembourg (already mentioned above), which had the highest level of expenditure per inhabitant, but a much lower ratio of expenditure relative to GDP (21.9 %), considerably lower than the EU-27 average (28.1 %). By contrast, social protection expenditure relative to GDP was slightly higher than one third (34.1 %) in France, while average expenditure per inhabitant was 10 917 PPS; the former was the highest ratio recorded among the Member States, while the latter was only the sixth highest per inhabitant value, although considerably above the EU-27 average.
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 2017, the gap between gross and net expenditure on social protection benefits in the EU-27 averaged 2.5 % of GDP. There were greater variations in some of the EU Member States, with the largest differences — as a percentage of GDP — often recorded for a number of Member States with some of the highest ratios of gross expenditure on social protection relative to GDP (see Figure 3). This was particularly the case for the Netherlands (a gap of 5.5 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-27 average.
When expenditure on social protection benefits is expressed in relation to GDP, the difference between the highest and lowest spending EU Member States was 17.7 percentage points for gross expenditure (France 31.7 % and Romania 14.1 %) compared with 16.0 points for net expenditure (France 29.9 % and Romania 14.0 %). The ranking of the Member States was generally quite similar when considering gross and net expenditure, although there were some differences: for example, Belgium had the ninth highest level of gross expenditure relative to GDP but was ranked in sixth place for net expenditure, whereas Cyprus had the 20th highest level of net expenditure but was ranked in 17th place in gross terms.
Social protection benefits made up 95.7 % of the EU-27’s social protection expenditure in 2017; the remaining share covered administration costs and other expenditure (see Figure 5). Old age and sickness/healthcare benefits together accounted for 66.1 % of total social protection expenditure while benefits related to family/children, disability, survivors and unemployment ranged between 7.9 % and 4.7 %; social exclusion benefits not elsewhere classified and housing accounted for the remaining 2.2 % and 1.4 % respectively.
Expenditure on pensions
Expenditure on pensions across the EU-27 was equivalent to 12.8 % of GDP in 2017. Among the EU Member States, expenditure on pensions relative to GDP was particularly high in several of the southern Member States and France (14.9 %), for example, Portugal (14.2 %) and Italy (15.8 %), with the highest ratio in Greece (16.5 %). At the other end of the range, ratios between 6.7 % and 7.7 % were recorded in the three Baltic Member States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as in Malta, while an even lower ratio was recorded in Ireland (5.6 %) — see Figure 6.
Pension expenditure per beneficiary varies according to the different types of pension (see Figure 7). In 2017, the aggregate expenditure per beneficiary on pensions relating to old age was around EUR 14 000 across the EU-27. This was somewhat lower than the average expenditure recorded for anticipated old age pensions (EUR 15 000 per beneficiary) which in turn was lower than for early retirement (due to a reduced capacity to work) where expenditure averaged EUR 16 100 per beneficiary. Expenditure on partial pensions, meanwhile, averaged just EUR 3 100 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 an income from employment.
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 2017, pension expenditure per beneficiary for old age pensions (the most common type of pension) varied across the EU Member States from EUR 1 900 in Bulgaria to EUR 27 700 in Luxembourg (see Figure 8). 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 19 800 PPS in Luxembourg, just ahead of Austria (19 300 PPS), while the lowest level of pension expenditure per beneficiary was recorded in Bulgaria (4 300 PPS).
Average (median) pension levels for 65 to 74 year-olds across the EU-27 in 2018 were lower than average earnings for people aged 50 to 59 years (see Figure 9). The difference between these two averages was particularly large in Ireland, where pension levels represented just 35 % of the average earnings among those aged 50 to 59 years. By contrast, this ratio — known as the aggregate replacement ratio — was particularly high in Luxembourg (87 %) and was also relatively high in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal (where the median pension of people aged 65 to 74 years was more than two thirds of the average earnings received by people aged 50 to 59 years). 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
Social protection expenditure on care for the elderly covers care allowance, accommodation, and assistance in carrying out daily tasks. In 2017, this type of expenditure in the EU-27 was equivalent to 0.4 % of GDP. In Sweden, the ratio for expenditure on care for the elderly relative to GDP was 2.3 %, close to six times as high as the EU-27 average. Social protection expenditure on care for the elderly was also in excess of 1.0 % of GDP in Denmark, Finland, Belgium and Austria, while it was less than 0.1 % of GDP in Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus and Luxembourg (see Figure 10).
Social protection receipts
An analysis of social protection receipts across the EU-27 in 2017 shows that the majority of receipts could be attributed to general government contributions (38.2 %) and employers’ social contributions (36.4 %), while around one fifth (21.9 %) of social protection receipts in the EU-27 were social contributions paid by protected persons (see Figure 11).
Social protection receipts in the EU-27 grew from EUR 6 900 per inhabitant to EUR 8 500 per inhabitant between 2008 and 2017, as overall receipts rose by a total of 24.9 %. 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 38.4 % in 2008 to 36.4 % by 2017. By contrast, there was an increase in the relative share of general government contributions, from 36.6 % to 38.2 % over the same period.
The structure of receipts used to finance social protection varies: three groups of EU Member States can be identified (see Figure 12). The largest group was composed of those Member States where government contributions formed the largest component of receipts in 2017: Denmark, Malta, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Cyprus, Portugal, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia. In the first four of these, government contributions accounted for more than half of all receipts (this was also the case in Norway and the United Kingdom), with this share peaking at more than three quarters of total receipts in Denmark (77.8 %).
In the remaining EU Member States, social contributions — from employers or from the protected persons — represented the largest component of receipts. In Estonia, Lithuania and Czechia, 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 Slovakia, Poland, Spain, Romania, Latvia, France, Belgium, 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 (41.9 % of total receipts) and the Netherlands (31.8 %).
Note that in most of the EU Member States other receipts tended to be relatively insignificant: they only contributed more than 10.0 % of total social protection receipts in the Netherlands and Poland; this was also the case in the United Kingdom, Iceland and Switzerland.
Source data for tables and graphs
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 ESSPOS 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 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. 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.
Aggregate replacement ratio
The aggregate replacement ratio is compiled as the ratio between gross retirement benefits and gross earnings. It is defined as the median individual gross pension income of those aged 65-74 years relative to the median individual gross earnings from work of those aged 50-59 years; it is expressed in percentage terms. These data are not part of ESSPROS, rather they 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 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.
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, 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 underpinned the Europe 2020 strategy and plays 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 set 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 years to 75 %. The European Commission provided support to help reach these targets through flagship initiatives, including the European platform against poverty and social exclusion and the New skills agenda for Europe. Furthermore, the European Commission provided 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 a number of key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. The pillar contains three main categories for action, one of which concerns social protection and inclusion, which covers the following areas:
- 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.
- This article is based on data for the same reference year for both gross and net benefits; as 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.
Direct access to
- Social protection (t_spr)
- Social protection (spr), see:
- Social protection expenditure (spr_expend)
- Social protection receipts (spr_receipts)
- Pensions beneficiaries (spr_pension)
- Net social protection benefits (spr_net_ben)
- European system of integrated social protection statistics ESSPROS — 2019 edition
- Social protection methodology
- Social protection (ESMS metadata file — spr_esms)
- 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). (Summary)
- 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.
- Commission Regulation (EU) No 263/2011 of 17 March 2011 concerning the launch of full data collection for the ESSPROS module on net social protection benefits.
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