The European Union made the combat against poverty and social exclusion one of its main goals in 2008. 20 million vulnerable people should be helped to a better life by 2020 in a coordinated effort, according to the European Commission. The main tool would be active inclusion. But its easier said than done.
Social policy is something that many member states regard as part of their national authority and sovereignty. The European anti-poverty strategy therefore risks creating tension between the states and the EU, or between local authorities and the state.
"Largely, national governments seem to have turned a deaf ear to the EU’s expectations about the high degree of coordination and collaboration between various levels and actors," says Bjørn Hvinden, who is a Professor at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences in Norway.
Together with Associate Professor Rune Halvorsen he has edited a book which summarises the findings a group of researchers from five countries made when they studied how the EU policies to combat poverty worked in five cities: Dortmund (Germany), Turin (Italy), Radom (Poland), Malmö (Sweden) and Glasgow (United Kingdom). The researchers worked within a European Union Seventh Framework project with the acronym “COPE”.
The work of the researchers shows just how bewildering the differences can be. Even if all the cities operate with some kind of minimum income schemes (MIS) the criteria to be eligible for the benefit differs, the funding comes from different sources, the degree of central regulation varies, as well as which public unit is responsible for delivering local benefits. In Dortmund in Germany there are two administrative levels in the local regulation of MIS, the federal and the local level, while in Radom in Poland there are four levels: state, region, poviat and gmina.
In some countries, like Sweden, the municipality plays the most important role:
"Voluntary organisations, charities, churches and private foundations play a minor role in providing services and guidance to the poor. The City of Malmö takes the view that public agencies are the best way to provide welfare and it generally rejects the idea of other actors being involved in the governance of social assistance," writes Max Koch and Alexandru Panican.
In Glasgow the opposite is the case:
"According to recent calculations there are currently 2,300 charities operating in Glasgow. Some of them are involved in the provision of outsourced public services and initiatives, whereas others build on the initiatives of users or local communities."
The launch of the combat against poverty could have come at a more opportune moment. The financial crisis 2008 is partly to blame for the lack of results and made the variations in unemployment even larger, between as well as within the countries. The unemployment rates vary between 30.4 percent in the south of Spain, to 2.5 percent in Salzburg in Austria. A common trait with the five chosen cities is that they are former industrial centres that subsequently had to adapt to “post-Fordist conditions”.
The researchers has not lost the faith in the strategy of active inclusion.
"A challenge with a policy concept like Active Inclusion is that it tends to involve greater public spending in the short term, with the promise of less need for spending in the longer term", says Bjørn Hvinden.
Active inclusion is the main tool in the strategy that the Commission proposed in 2008. In an interview about the project Martin Heidenreich defines active inclusion as:
“the combination of an adequate income support, inclusive labour markets and the access to quality services. Politically, it implies the extension of activation principles to social assistance recipients (long-term unemployed and other groups), who are more distant from the labour market and who are often characterised by multiple employment barriers (such as low qualifications, health problems, alcoholism, addiction etc.). Therefore, a broad array of social, educational, health and rehabilitation services in addition to classic employment measures (such as training and placement and standard income support) is an indispensable element of the strategy.”
- Evidently, there is a substantial group of people with complex challenges related to employment, social participation and well-being who require a combination of different forms of support and assistance, says Bjørn Hvinden.
The European Commission wanted the member states to set common goals for reducing poverty and also to report the progress in National Reform Plans. Matteo Jessoula describes how setting quantitative targets was opposed by several countries, since it had the potential to legitimise stronger European interference in domestic anti-poverty agendas. In three of the countries investigated, Sweden, Germany and the UK, the National Reform Plans did not set targets in accordance with the indicators agreed at the EU level.
The researchers found that the cities where the EU policy worked best was where the issue was not politicised, but mainly handled by the national bureaucracies. In Italy and Poland, national targets were established in accordance with EU indicators, aiming to lift respectively 2.2 and 1.5 million people out of poverty and social exclusion by 2020.
"These also are the two countries, where despite – or possibly because of – the low politicisation of the issue at the early stage, the Europe 2020 strategy apparently produced the most relevant substantive effects," writes Matteo Jessoula.
What about the effect on the local level? Håkan Johansson and Franca Maioa draw this conclusion:
"In sum, the EU has significance for the local actors, though primarily as a source of financial support for local activities. Yet local actors tend to see the European anti-poverty strategy as peripheral to their own policies and work.
"We could say that the local level does not perceive EU as being important for its efforts in combating poverty, while the European level perceives what happens at the local level in Europe as crucial for the EU and its future."
The city is one of five cities researchers have studied to find out how the European Union's social policy is working (picture above).
The book “Combating poverty in Europe” is a collective effort of a team of European researchers. Professor Martin Heidenreich at the Carl von Ossietzky University, Germany, has been the scientific coordinator of the project.