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Protecting families from poverty

11/05/2010

What is the role of social protection systems in preventing and tacking poverty and social exclusion of families in Europe? A recent seminar organised by COFACE, the confederation of family organisations in the European Union, considered this in the context of 2010 as the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion and the recent proposals for the Europe2020 Strategy. The seminar, titled ‘the role of social protection in the fight against poverty and social exclusion: which safety net for families?’ was held in Brussels on 26 March 2010.

The seminar began with two complementary presentations on the historical context and European landscape of social protection systems and families at risk of poverty. Mrs Gabrielle Clotuche, adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), pointed out that social protection systems in the various Member States of the EU originated from different historical, cultural and philosophical backgrounds (variously based on concepts such as ‘risk’, ‘inequality’ or ‘need’). She also highlighted the long-term challenge of an ageing population and the short-term one of rising unemployment and job insecurity due to the economic crisis.

Focusing on the questions ‘What do we know?’ and ‘What can we do?’ Mrs Bea Cantillon, sociology professor at the University of Antwerp, looked at the links between social protection systems and the fight against family poverty. She discussed the variety of definitions of ‘social exclusion’ and the factors contributing to it, whether low income itself, inequitable income distribution and levels of unemployment.

Professor Cantillon observed that there is great diversity in the situations in different European countries, both in terms of poverty (60% of national median income) and of jobless households. We can therefore look for best practices among those countries showing better performance in these terms, she said. In particular, she showed that even though there is little correlation between the social protection levels and poverty rates in EU Member States, there is a strong correlation showing decreased likelihood of families being at risk of poverty where social expenditures on children and family welfare are higher. There is also a correlation across Europe, with some notable exceptions, between rates of unemployment and poverty. She concluded that effective anti-poverty policies imply a substantial cost and that no trade-off is possible between growth, jobs and social redistribution if one is to tackle poverty in the EU.

During a policy-makers’ roundtable in the afternoon, Mrs Antonia Carparelli, Head of Unit "Inclusion, socio-political aspects of migration, social integration policies" in DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, presented the new proposals of the European Commission for Europe 2020. This strategy for recovery from the economic crisis and for the coming decade is made up of three priorities, including one for ‘inclusive growth’, five headline objectives and seven flagship initiatives.

The economic crisis is expected to push the EU’s unemployment rate above 10.5% in 2010, which in turn may lead to average social protection expenditure by Member States climbing from 27.5% to more than 30% of GDP. Poverty rates were also seen to increase from 16% to 17% in 2007-08 and this is likely to rise again for 2009-10.

Social expenditure in a broad sense - social protection, education and health - makes up about 70% of public expenditure in the EU (40% being on social protection benefits, health and education spending is excluded). However, with government debt and deficits also rising there will be strong pressures on social expenditure, leading to increased urgency for an agenda that reforms and modernises social protection.

Mrs Carparelli explained that the inclusive growth priority of the Europe 2020 strategy is to be supported by two of the objectives (a target for employment and one for poverty reduction) and two of the flagship initiatives (an agenda for new skills and new jobs, as well as an EU platform against poverty and exclusion).

Mrs Muriel Rabau, Adviser to the Belgian Federal Public Service Social Security and Member of the Social Protection Committee also said that the Belgian Presidency of the European Union plans to organise a conference on the topic of active inclusion in November 2010.

In summing up, Mrs Annemie Drieskens, chair of the COFACE working group on family and social policies, highlighted some of the outputs of the seminar’s workshops on ‘Social protection and the fight against family poverty’ and ‘Issues for the future of social protection systems in the European Union’, including the observation: ‘more equality leads to more solidarity’ in society.

COFACE will prepare proposals and recommendations to the Commission based on the day’s discussions.

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