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Changes in the Slovenian Welfare State

Slovenia maintained a rather satisfactory level of social protection, which enabled most of the population with low income or without income at all to remain above the poverty threshold. The only data on poverty are those provided in the annual study by the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC). According to EU-SILC, the risk of poverty had been declining for several consecutive years and was among the lowest in the EU during the first decade of the 2000s.

Table 4.1 Risk of poverty with regard to gender

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Total

12.2

11.6

11.5

12.3

11.3

12.7

13.6

13.5

Men

10.6

10.3

10.0

11.0

9.8

11.3

12.2

12.5

Women

13.7

12.9

12.9

13.6

12.8

14.1

15.0

14.6

Source: Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia

An increase was noted in 2008, when the at-risk-of-poverty rate rose from 11.5 to 12.3 per cent, and since the trend of poverty started to increase. This shift cannot be attributed to the economic crisis, since the study on income and living conditions was conducted in the first half of 2008, when Slovenia was still reporting 5.5 per cent economic growth, and the income taken into account in this study was that earned in 2007. The greatest increase in poverty (before the crisis) was therefore observed during the year in which Slovenia experienced an economic boom.

An increase in poverty during a period of economic growth indicates an inadequate redistribution of resources, preventing poor people from gaining some benefit from the general welfare generated by economic growth. However, the necessity of economic growth is most often explained by the need to create general welfare. So the question is obvious: Why did poverty in Slovenia increase during a period of high economic growth? The blame lies with social policy. In 2005, social policy underwent a series of structural reforms that aimed at what was considered as a modernization of the social protection system. The reform programme was created as a part of the open method of coordination, conducted by the European Commission within the areas that are not regulated on the European level. This status means that changes do not involve obligations. One such area left to individual countries is social policy, but which is also aligned with member states based on the EC's recommendations. National reform programmes were drawn up by all member states, and their aim is to implement the Lisbon strategy for economic growth and full employment. One of the main concepts in the area of social policy was the modernization of the welfare state. The Slovenian reform programme introduced radical changes into the welfare state, which was in line with the programme's purpose to implement, as expressed in the vocabulary of the EU, structural reforms and institutional adjustments. The reform documents8 mainly focus on three tasks: the creation of one entry point for all social transfer claims, the common database of social transfers in cash, and the establishment of a more just and transparent system of social transfers. The necessity of these changes is based on the dominant belief that welfare recipients are passive and lack initiative and motivation. These characteristics are believed to be part of their personal disposition as well as a result of the generosity of the welfare state that allegedly supports or even creates such behaviour.9

To reinforce such convictions, the reform strategists resorted to discourses that led to the criminalization of the cash benefits recipients. One such discourse promotes the view that they unjustifiably accumulate money and take advantage of the system. Another argues that they cheat and abuse the system, and still another focuses on their allegedly pathological dependence on cash benefits. This was reflected in the text accompanying the bill on cash benefits that was passed into law in 2010, which read as follows: 'The longer the period of receiving social benefits, the more dependent on it the receivers are. They find it increasingly difficult to accept work that is offered to them because this implies a great change in their lifestyle developed during the long period of receiving social benefits' (Draft Social Assistance Act 2009, 5). Accordingly, it is believed that it is possible to prevent such dependence by implementing certain measures. The discourses mentioned above furnished the basis for the arguments in favour of the curtailment of social rights and restrictions on access to these in 2010, when the draft of the Social Assistance Act was presented for public debate before it was adopted in the parliament.

Access to social rights had already been made more difficult when the Social Protection Act was amended in January 2007 (Act 2007/3). These amendments introduced a series of new conditions for obtaining cash benefits as well as reasons for exclusion. Among the changes were a restriction on the savings account sum

8 Reform Programme for Achieving the Lisbon Strategy Goals, 2005; The Framework of Economic and Social reforms for Increasing Welfare in Slovenia, 2005; National Development Programme 2007–2013, and Reform Programme for Achieving the Lisbon Strategy Goals in Slovenia 2008–2010.

9 Jože P. Damjan, the minister responsible for the preparation of reform documents, sought the causes for long-term unemployment in people's work habits. He started from the thesis that the Slovenes did not perceive work as a value, so once they lost their job they were unwilling to find a new one. (The records of the panel discussion Values in Slovenia and Proposed Reforms, January 26, 2006, Cankarjev dom; organized by Forum 21.) The same minister stated that 'Today, if you are unemployed, finding a job does not pay off because you get too many social transfers.' rtvslo.si/modload.php?&c_mo d=rnews&op=sections&func=read&c_menu=26&c_id=90336&tokens=Jože%20P%20 Damijan (May 31, 2006). and the value of a car;10 moreover, the beneficiary's apartment was taken into account when calculating income, although only that part which exceeded the minimum requirements for a suitable living place (60 m2 for the first person in the household). The new law introduced ten reasons for which a claimant fulfilling other criteria could be excluded from the social aid scheme. Most of these related to the way in which a person lost a job. Compulsory (forced) labour as a legal category was also introduced, meaning that the cash benefits recipients who cannot find a job must work for humanitarian or charity organizations. The introduction of forced labour was a turn from social rights to restitution. By performing any kind of work, either paid or unpaid, benefit recipients returned at least a portion of what the state, in its view, generously gave to them, benefits which contributed to the passivity of benefit recipients.

The new Financial Social Assistance Act of 201011 (Act 2010/61) made the terms of accessing cash benefits even more difficult to meet and introduced greater control over beneficiaries. As a result, professional services have at their disposal as many as 35 databases containing data on beneficiaries, which they can access directly using special software. Among other types of data, the authorities have access to bank accounts, databases containing information on their property (e.g. the land register, the register of real property, and tax information). In order to be entitled to claim a benefit, an individual must give the social services permission to use such a database.

The criminalization of beneficiaries certainly played a part in the process of enacting the law, which was based on the argument that it was necessary to prevent cheating and abuse. Actually, the whole public promotion of changes was based on the campaign against thieves, fraudsters and those who might abuse the welfare state.12 We should not overlook the fact that the law was formulated and passed by the social democratic government, which won the election on the premise that the preceding, right-wing government had been excessively neoliberal. In truth, that government had passed reforms that were explicitly based on the neo-classical (neoliberal) economic paradigm.

10 The Financial Social Assistance Act of 2010 set the limit of single person's savings at 500 EUR and that of the family savings at 1,500 EUR; furthermore, it prescribed that the value of the car must not exceed the value of 28 minimum incomes (minimum income amounts to 260 EUR).

11 The law came into force on 1 January 2012.

12 From the very beginning, the campaign aimed at amending the Social Assistance Act has been based on the fraud argument. The line of reasoning was that amendments would lead to a more just system and that the money would go only to people who truly need it (dnevnik.si/slovenija/v-ospredju/1042495328; mddsz.gov. si/nc/si/medijsko_sredisce/novica/article/1966/6805/). One consequence of the changes was that of the 46,000 retired people who received income support, approximately 31,000 lost the right to it. (Assessment of the effects of the new social legislation: irssv. si/publikacije/leto-2013/index.html.) The character and extent of fraud prevention in the new Slovenian law can be demonstrated by a couple of examples. First, single parents (who most often are mothers) have to prove that they are truly single, but it is not clear how they are to do this. The definition of income embraces practically everything, including humanitarian aid, charity, the aid provided by local communities and the like. The number of fault-based grounds (a new term introduced in 2010 denoting those who are not entitled to benefits) that can prevent the allocation of cash benefits increased to 30, most of them relating to employment or the manner in which someone has lost his or her job. For example, individuals who have not completed the probationary period are not entitled to cash benefits, nor are those who were dismissed unjustifiably but failed to take legal steps to protect their rights. Among other things, humanitarian and charity organizations are obliged to report all aid given to individuals, since it is to be counted as income. With each group of benefit recipients, the state claims inheritance rights when a benefit recipient dies.

All of these practices form one group of requirements. The other group prescribes the behaviour of benefit recipients. They are obliged to accept every kind of work regardless of their education or remuneration, and the obligation to perform humanitarian or other unpaid work has been shifted to the employment legislation. Furthermore, social rights cannot be obtained unless a claimant is registered with the Employment Service of Slovenia. The latter organization, in turn, has the right to remove from the register anyone who declines a job and such a person loses the right to social benefits.

One of the most controversial measures introduced by the new law was supervision of the recipients of social aid. Social workers in Slovenia are one group who work for the departments overseeing the practical implementation of social rights and, consequently, they are directly involved in supervision and punitive practices. The authorized body conducts supervision either by collecting information or by visiting a recipient's home without previous notice to check on the person's possessions and lifestyle. Whether a person will be able to retain the right to social benefits is therefore dependent on supervisors. If they deem that the beneficiary's lifestyle, appearance or other signs are in contradiction with the person's declared income, the law enables them to withhold certain rights even if the person meets all requirements (Draft Social Assistance Act 2009, 105). This discretionary right gives great power to the supervisory staff and it enables them to abuse it. To understand how consequential such provisions can be, consider the case of a woman who argued that she lived in a single-person household. When inspecting her bedroom, the supervisor found two pillows on the bed and two toothbrushes in the bathroom, and this led to the conclusion that the woman lived with a partner (Žurnal24 5 February 2012). Such practices have been legitimized by the new law and it is possible to expect their proliferation in the future.


 
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