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Portugal: investing in care and flexibility to deal with growing challenges

General outlook and context

Portugal has been experiencing a long-term trend of decline in fertility rates, together with a steady reduction of families’ average sizes and a very challenging development with regard to population ageing. The latter is associated with increases on average life expectancy and has been further accelerated by recent negative net migration. In addition, since Portugal joined the euro area, average annual GDP growth has been low and the economic, financial and debt crisis that started in 2008 added extra pressure both on the labour and product markets and on social expenditure. Consequently, social policy faces demanding times in balancing public finances consolidation and providing adequate support families with children, particularly the ones suffering from harsh social and economic conditions.

In light of the crisis, the Portuguese government launched a three year Social Emergency Program (PES – Programa de Emergência Social) with a clear focus on providing additional support for vulnerable families and to mitigate the impact of unemployment, as well as the difficulties to keep up with mortgage commitments. While families with children can receive a variety of benefits, e.g. unemployment benefits are topped-up for jobless households with dependent children, the strategic approach has been to further increase the capacity of local non-profit organizations to deal with emergent family needs together with a multidimensional and integrated approach that covers, among others, housing, microcredits, volunteering, training, scholarships, social tariffs for public transportation and energy.

Access to adequate resources

The expansion of social care provision based on a strong partnership with the third sector has been one of the main characteristics of the Portuguese social policy. The private non-profit providers of childcare benefit from public funding for each child using the services and this expenditure has been increasing continuously throughout the years, even during the Economic and Financial Adjustment Program (EFAP). Therefore, access to childcare has been increasing mainly with regard to full-time services for children under 3 years of age. In 2011, 35% of children aged 0 to 3 benefitted from childcare services (1% for less than 30 hours a week and 34% for at least 30 hours a week) whereas in 2005 this figure was around 30% (4% for less than 30 hours a week and 26% for at least 30 hours a week). When considering pre-school participation the figure rises to 81% for children between 3 years and compulsory school age (6 years old) in 2011, compared to a slightly higher average of 83% in the EU in 2011. However, this still represents a significant increase as compared to 2006 figures (75%). The specific situation in Portugal is that most of these children between 3 years and compulsory school age attend pre-school for 30 hours or more per week (74% in 2011). Portugal was placed 6th in the EU with its participation rate well above the EU-28 average of 46% in 2011.

In the last decade Portugal has invested extensively not only in the development of the childcare services, but also adapted to varying family needs. A significant percentage of crèches are open for more than 11 hours a day in order to provide more flexibility for families to balance work with family and personal life. This is particularly relevant as most households with children have dual-earners with full-time jobs. Accordingly the percentage of women working part-time in Portugal (16.8% in 2012) is low, comparative to the EU-28 average (32.5% in 2012) and the proportion of part-time working mothers is even lower.

Although the labour market has been suffering considerably since 2008 from the financial, economic and debt crisis, the Portuguese female general employment rate (58.7% in 2012) is slightly above the EU-28 average (58.5% in 2012). Despite the still quite low proportion of women working part-time, 16.8% in 2012, this percentage has been increasing since 2010 (15.5%), and the same goes for men (12.1% in 2012 against 10.7% in 2011).

Another crucial investment made in recent years concerns changes on parental leave. Portugal not only strengthened incentives for shared parental leave through higher replacement rates, but has also introduced social parental leave for families with low resources extending the system of solidarity (funded by taxes) in order to support families with small children. With these policy measures the coverage rate of parental leave rose to 100% when considering the annual number of births, which helped to increase the number of fathers that take-up shared parental leave. Consequently, young children are increasingly cared for by both their parents and these families have more support not only from an increase in care services, but also through more comprehensive cash benefits.

Access to affordable quality services

The current challenging times require adaptability and flexibility in order to increase efficiency without compromising quality while, if possible, promoting higher quality standards. A close and continuous collaboration between the government and representatives of non-profit organisations allowed for the introduction of additional flexibility with regard to operational requirements, which led to a better adjustment to family needs and childcare demands. An example of the latter is the increased autonomy granted to the management of social institutions, by introducing some flexibility on regulations, investing in training for management skills of social workers, and promoting volunteering and social work in this field.

Overall, Portugal has seen an increase in public expenditure on benefits for children and families. Social spending on benefits for children and families was at 1.4% of GDP in 2009 but decreased slightly to 1.2% in 2011, a trend which can also be observed at an EU level with average spending decreasing in EU-28 from 2.3% in 2009 to 2.2% in 2011.

In order to improve the educational system’s impact on equal opportunities for children, increasing participation rates in early childcare and pre-school are seen as a crucial element. The Eurostat data reported above shows a positive development of indicators in recent years, which reflects the Portuguese commitment to invest in education and care in the early stages as an important route to promote equal opportunities for children.


Portugal faces considerable structural challenges aggravated by an adverse economic situation and related social and demographic impacts. These challenges are being dealt with by strengthening the long established strategic partnership with organizations from the third sector and by implementing an extensive emergency programme to help families with children coping with the harsh economic situation, in particular. Improving the provision of care and other essential services, as well increasing its flexibility in order to meet families’ needs, are two key features of the recent policy response to meet these challenges.

Focus on gender equality

Since the 1980s, Portugal has promoted gender equality in the labour market and in caring for children. This policy has achieved considerable results — the female employment rate is above the EU average and markedly higher than elsewhere in southern Europe. The gender pay gap is among the lowest in the EU (12.8% in 2010).
However, progress is still to be made as the uneven distribution of household and caring responsibilities still puts extra strain on women. At three hours a week, the difference in formal working hours is comparatively small between women and men. However, employed men allocate 17 hours less per week to household and family work than do women. According to the Second European Quality of Life Survey, the father’s role in parental care remains limited, although the gender gap is lower in caring for and educating children (seven hours) than in cooking and doing housework (ten hours).
Some organisations such as the OECD recommend further positive action measures by the government and social partners to encourage men to participate in family and care work. One of the concrete recommendations is to offer more flexible childcare services. It has also been suggested that financial support could be provided to enterprises that participate in a ‘Work and Family Audit’ and are supportive of their employees’ family obligations.