The universal model of welfare for the unemployed is similar in all Northern European countries.
In Germany, every unemployed individual can count on €382 per month plus allowances for rent, heating and healthcare, together with reductions on public transport. For each child under five years €224 are added every month; from five years up to thirteen years, €255; thirteen to seventeen years old, €289.
From an official German website: a single parent with an eight-year-old-son, in addition to the basic subsidy, receives another €255, to which €46 should be added, always for the child, up to a total of €683.
Another example: a family with a fifteen-year-old-son, where both parents are unemployed, receives €979 per month. The figure is the sum of the €690 the two parents receive (€345 for each parent) and the €289 for the child. If the son were seventeen, then they would be entitled to another €287, up to a total of €1,266 per month.
In France, one acquires the right to the Revenu de solidarité active at the age of twenty-five, a condition which does not apply for those who have a child or children to take care of: in this case, one is entitled to the subsidy earlier.
§The amounts are as follows: €467 for a single person; €799 for a single parent family with one child; €980 for a couple with two children; €1,167 for a couple with three children.
The condition is, as for other forms of guaranteed minimum income, the willingness to look for work, or even the willingness to start one’s own business.
Now, the fact that in Italy what is normal in most of Europe is considered utopian is significant not only on a social level (i.e. the lack of redistributive measures that are considered necessary and essential in other countries) but on the political level as well.
A poor knowledge of European welfare policies promotes a grim depiction of Europe as surly and antisocial, and fuels anti-European populism.
This occurs especially when the demand for reform from ’Europe’ clashes with national welfare. Among influential Italian journalists and non-fiction authors prevails the story, between catastrophic and smug, of the end of the welfare state. Europe is presented as a danger, not as an opportunity.
The context is missing. It might be true that, compared to the standards of the past, quite a few things have changed in the European social model.
However, compared to Italy, the current standards of European welfare remain in Utopia. And as long as they remain in Utopia, they cannot be a model for improving (and reforming) the welfare system.
In Britain, the proposal to reform the welfare system, which the BBC has defined of historical value, met with a very strong reaction.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced that young people between eighteen and twenty-four years old will no longer be allowed to ‘leave school, sign up for welfare, find an apartment (flat), request that it be paid for by the Housing Benefit and opt for a life in welfare’.
According to Cameron, in fact, ‘The time has come for a change’ (“The Guardian”, October 2, 2013). If young people want to keep the benefits that allow them to live alone, they must agree to go to school or attend an apprenticeship course.
Is this the end of welfare? It depends. In Italy it seems hardly possible to imagine a set of reforms which would allow unemployed young people to live alone, on the condition that they take an apprenticeship course or go to school.
It escapes the Italian public opinion entirely that the restrictive welfare reforms in other European countries were motivated (rightly or wrongly) by the idea that unemployment benefits encourage unemployment, or produce a ‘welfare trap’.
In short, why should I work if I can live on benefits? An attempt was made then, more or less all over Europe, to reduce the ability of the unemployed to refuse work offered by Job Centres. Those who refuse jobs risk losing their subsidies. The Job Centres themselves have been reformed, to make them more efficient in finding a job for their ‘clients’ (as they say now).
The back to work policy begun by Tony Blair is found in the Hartz reforms in Germany, which are also motivated by the need to bring people back into work, reducing, though not by much, the subsidies and introducing labour contracts (mini-jobs) which the unemployed can access without losing their benefits.
This type of reform has the (far from secondary) effect of reducing labour costs by reducing the reservation wage. These reforms have not necessarily resulted in a reduction of social expenditure: in France, for example, the RSA, which has replaced the RMI, stipulates that the unemployed can maintain some subsidies if their work income does reach minimum wage.
There is certainly an ideological component in the idea that social welfare is responsible for unemployment. But the issue here is not to evaluate this aspect, but rather to contextualise the meaning of reforms which, taken out of context, are entirely biased in Italy.
An example is the reception of mini-jobs, which were presented as underemployment, with employment contracts as low as €450 per month, basically China in Europe.
In reality, mini-jobs are part-time contracts that include benefits for the unemployed: housing, allowances for each child, health insurance and part of the unemployment cheque. They are so unlike a job that they imply unemployment benefits.