EMIN successfully organized its first peer review on coverage and take-up of benefits on 13 and 14 March in Helsinki Finland. EMIN teams from Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Portugal, Spain and UK participated and presented reports on the state-of-play in their countries. A general introduction to the subject was delivered by Anna Ludwinek from EUROFOUND, who published research on the problem. Special attention was also given to the basic income experiment that is running in Finland, since this could inspire policy makers on the advantages of less conditionality for benefit receipt. We were also inspired by the policy of Scotland where the government puts a lot of emphasis on the social right of people to receive the benefits they need. The presentations of all speakers and of national EMIN teams were published in our message of 27 March.
The results of the peer review are now reflected in the final report, drafted by Lauri Mäkinen. The report starts with a comprehensive overview of the state-of-play on coverage and take-up of minimum income benefits. Even though minimum income schemes are different, non-take up of minimum income is a problem in most of the countries. Non-take-up means that a person or a household is eligible for a minimum income but for some reason does not claim it. In addition to this, minimum income schemes in many countries are not covering extensively the people in need. Especially young people, migrants, homeless people often do not have access to the benefits. The report shows that reducing non-take-up has many advantages: it may increase public expenditure in the short run, but in the long run the expenditures will decrease. Claiming benefits may prevent situations that in the future may have a higher cost. For instance, if people cannot pay for health care services, their health status may deteriorate in the long run resulting in higher public expenditure. Reducing non-take-up may also help countries to achieve their EUROPE 2020 poverty targets or at least alleviate poverty in more extreme cases. Non-take-up can be explained and approached from different perspectives. On the basis of the EUROFOUND research, the factors affecting take-up can be classified at four levels: factors related to administration, benefit design, individual level factors and society.
The inspiration from the introductions of the speakers and the discussions at the peer review led to interesting policy recommendations. According to the participants, there are several things that can be done at the administrative level to reduce non-take-up. More and better information on minimum income and the social security system in general must be provided. Where possible, benefits should be granted automatically. Staff at the local welfare offices should be well trained and provided with adequate resources to help assisting people claiming the benefit. Decisions on the benefit should be made fast and claimants should have a possibility to revise their application and file a complaint on the decision. IT-databases and solutions could be used in identifying the households not taking up their benefit. In Croatia and Finland, real-time income registers are developed that could help administrations to identify the people who are eligible for the Minimum Income. Co-operation with other public authorities or NGOs could increase the possibility of people taking up the benefits they are entitled to. For example, in Belgium, the Crossroads Bank for Social Security enables administrations to communicate with each other and help to ensure that people have taken up their rights for the benefits.
There are also possibilities to improve coverage and take-up in the design of the benefit. Here it is important to include participation of people who have experienced poverty in the design of the system. Increasing the level of minimum income, lowering the threshold to access benefits and establishing simple and transparent entitlement criteria could improve coverage and take-up, to reach out to more people who need support, and also decrease the stigma related to the benefit. To assess adequacy of minimum income benefits, a benchmark is needed at EU level; the 60% of median income at-risk-of-poverty threshold, combined with the use of reference budgets provide good instruments for this purpose. Access to adequate, accessible and enabling minimum income benefits should be conceived as social right, anchored in law. Means testing should be limited. Minimum income should be more sensitive to the individual circumstances and use an enabling approach instead of a punitive approach. Several channels for claiming are needed to improve accessibility of the scheme, as well through on-line application as through accessible public offices. Simplifying the entitlement criteria and language used in the forms could have positive impacts on non-take-up.
Suggestions on the societal level were also made. Raising awareness about minimum income among the public, through campaigns, in schools, healthcare and social services, and through involvement of NGOs, can help to reduce stigma. In Scotland, campaigns with several different media channels are organized to increase take-up of social benefits and to reduce stigma. Increasing Internet penetration is important if on-line services are a core part of the Minimum Income.
In conclusion, some important messages come from the peer review. First, minimum income schemes that are adequate and accessible are more likely to receive higher levels of take-up. This would mean that the minimum income scheme is of decent standard and provides an easy access for the claimants.
Secondly, the schemes need simplification. This means that the entitlement criteria must be simple and transparent, procedures are simple and also the language used in application is simple and understandable to the people.
Raising awareness has a dual role in reducing non-take-up. Raising awareness about the Minimum Income among the public may change how the public sees the recipients of the Minimum Income. This may have stigma reducing effects which may eventually lead to lower levels of non-take-up. Besides that, a greater awareness can also increase the take-up among those who were eligible to the benefit, but unaware that it exists.
Co-operation between the minimum income administration and other agencies may have positive effects in reducing non-take-up. As mentioned earlier, co-operation can take different forms from providing information about the Minimum Income to identifying the people eligible for the benefit.
Some of the suggestions may require more resources to build new infrastructure. Resources are needed for designing and monitoring the benefit system. Providing resources for social workers to outreach to the community can create a new kind of service infrastructure and help people realizing their right to Minimum Income. Creating ICT solutions to identify the people who are not taking up their benefits can also be of use in reducing non-take-up.
Even though increased coverage and take-up may lead to rising social expenditure in the short term, there are incentives for governments to react to these issues. In the longer run, increased coverage and take-up may lead to lower public costs, alleviate poverty in the extreme cases and help governments to reach their EU2020 poverty targets.
Download the full report here.