Statcounter

31 Jul 2014

Welfare reform in the air in Norway

Norway’s new government minister in charge of labour and welfare issues is poised to put some new demands on those collecting welfare benefits. Robert Eriksson thinks young passive welfare recipients must “be activated” by being required, for example, to perform tasks from shovelling snow to picking up litter in order to qualify.

“The most important way of securing the sustainability of the welfare state is to put more people to work,” Eriksson told newspaper VG this week, after unveiling efforts to make changes in the way Norway’s social welfare agency NAV distributes benefits. Passivity is the worst enemy of the unemployed and welfare recipients, Eriksson believes, so he wants NAV to activate them with such things as performing public service tasks.

Activity can also include educational programs that welfare recipients would be required to attend in order to qualify for benefits. Eriksson also wants to limit exports of social welfare benefits to Norwegian residents living abroad, for example by reducing payments in accordance with the cost of living where the recipient lives. Eriksson also intends to beef up probes of suspected welfare fraud.

Eriksson has been studying the NAV system since taking office last fall and met with dozens of NAV users and employees face-to-face last spring, in order to gather information and ideas. A commission set up to go through all facets of the NAV system is due to begin work this autumn. Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized in support of his proposals on Wednesday: “It’s worth a try to find new ways of warding off long-term unemployment and the prospect of falling outside of society.” For some youth, the paper noted, it can be necessary to prod them into getting up and out in the morning, and they also shouldn’t be paid as much in benefits as they’d get in a low-paid job. Cutting benefits, the paper reasoned, can make them more motivated to work instead of just collecting welfare.

Eriksson, of the conservative Progress Party, faces predictable skepticism and criticism from opposition parties in Parliament. Johnny Ingebrigtsen of the Socialist Left (SV) thinks the government should concentrate on welfare fraud instead: “We know that there are people who cheat the system. There are people collecting benefits who have the health and resources to work but who don’t. We need to smoke them out. Swindlers undermine the entire welfare system and respect for it.”

SV firmly opposes Eriksson’s plans to activate all welfare recipients. “Those who exploit the system mustn’t be confused with those who are struggling and who need to be taken care of,” Ingebriftsen said.

Eriksson maintains that the NAV system is overdue for modernization. “The challenge is that we will have around 1 million more people living in Norway by 2030,” he said. “That means among other things that the number of people working compared to those on pensions will sink to 2.9. There will be more youth who don’t complete high school along with tougher competition for jobs. So we must be more active before we can be passive.”

Eriksson also worries that welfare recipients tend to inherit the practice from their parents. Ingebrigtsen rejects that idea: “Studies show that there aren’t many recipients who’ve inherited a life on welfare,” he said. “There aren’t so many who are simply lazy.”

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