From Covid-19 to the cost-of-living crisis: Poor social protection is Spain's Achilles heel

Koldo Casla

6 mins - 18 de Julio de 2022, 11:00

We can't live like this, Human Rights Watch’s new report, documents the general failure of Spain's social protection to lift people out of poverty. The international human rights organisation showcases that efforts by public authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic fell short of international standards of adequacy, forcing an increasing number of people to rely on foodbanks for their day-to-day essentials.

The cost-of-living crisis derived from inflation and global food and energy supply shortages is only going to make matters worse.

Volunteers in foodbanks up and down the country are showing the power of human empathy, but foodbanks are themselves an expression of the failure of the system. They are not a solution, but a symptom.

Human Rights Watch is not the first to lament the frailties of Spain's social protection. In 2019, the European Commission highlighted that "the capacity of social transfers other than pensions to reduce poverty remains among the lowest in the Union, especially for children. Social spending as a share of GDP in Spain for households with children in Spain is one of the lowest in the EU and is poorly targeted". After his official 2020 mission to the country, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, concluded that "social assistance in Spain does a poor job of tackling poverty."

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In my book
'Spain and Its Achilles' Heels: The Strong Foundations of a Country's Weaknesses' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), I argue that deficient social assistance is an expression of Spain's underdeveloped welfare state, one of the most significant and enduring structural limitations of the country's social rights system.

By social assistance I mean specifically non-contributory cash transfers to households outside other social insurance schemes –pensions, including the non-contributory one, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, etc.– particularly when those or other sources of income, from capital or labour, are insufficient to cover basic needs. In other words, I am talking about minimum income schemes, the last resort to alleviate the worst forms of poverty for many households. According to the most recent official data, 27.8% of people were at risk of poverty and social exclusion in Spain in 2021, up from 27.0% in 2020.

Other Western European countries set up minimum income schemes in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, but Spain did not. The 1978 constitution simply stated [Article 148(1)(20)] that the regions and nationalities could set up complementary social assistance schemes. All of them assumed such a responsibility in their respective statutes of self-government in the 1980s. Inspired by the French revenu minimum d’insertion of 1988, the Basque social assistance scheme was set up in 1989, followed by all other Spanish regions by 1995.

However, the redistributive capacity of the regional programmes has been by and large very limited. Spain's regionally fragmented system of social assistance has been utterly insufficient to shield people from poverty, with enormous differences between regions in terms of coverage, adequacy and conditionality. In light of this, the European Committee of Social Rights found Spain in non-conformity with the European Social Charter (Article 13) on the grounds of the excessively burdensome requirements of length of residence, the arbitrary age restrictions, the time limit of the benefits, which generally do not last for as long as they are needed, and the insufficient amount in most regions.

This is why the Minimum Vital Income (MVI), in place since 2020, was both an achievement and the expression of a huge policy and political failure. Spain's regions and nationalities have had the power and the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable for more than three decades. However, most of them fell way short.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch’s report shows that the MVI has been no panacea either. Its reach has been very limited, and the rollout slow and uneven across the country. Two years since its creation, it is still unclear how the MVI will coexist with the regional minimum income schemes. There are well-founded fears that regional governments that have historically been disinclined to invest in social protection despite the constitutional mandate will be even more reluctant now that a centralised programme exists.

The public information centre Civio has documented that public authorities systematically reject MVI applications, or simply give applicants the silent treatment, as they did in 56% of cases in the first nine months of 2021. Civio also reported that the Government loses 42% of cases that reach the courts. However, by the time this happens it is by definition too late for those for whom the MVI may draw a thin line between them and the poverty trap.

Furthermore, considering that most disadvantaged families find themselves at the lower end of the digital divide, many do not have the means to claim the benefit without assistance face-to-face at the local level. According to the Catholic relief and social service organisation Caritas, nearly two million households have limited or no access to digital tools, which severely restricts their ability to interact with public authorities and to claim the social benefits they are entitled to. The digital divide is the illiteracy of the 21st century.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter, pointed out in his recent report on obstacles that prevent eligible individuals from claiming or receiving benefits, it is necessary to "recast social protection not as a favour provided by benevolent governments, but as a human right. This redefinition could help reformulate the relationship between service providers and users, increasing the accountability of the former and empowering the latter."

It is not just about human rights. It is also sensible economics. Comparative research shows that social assistance and minimum income schemes tend to have a positive impact on consumption, which in turn results in wider benefits for the local economy. Given the limited amounts and recipients’ urgent needs, money transferred via minimum income schemes is money that is spent immediately, not invested or saved for the future. Economic benefits do trickle down creating new opportunities for businesses, for job creation and for tax collection.

Spain developed its welfare state late, and social protection schemes have been patchy and largely underfunded. Addressing the cost-of-living crisis requires benefit levels that are sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living for everyone. The fourth largest economy of the Eurozone cannot afford anything less than that.
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