The Purpose of Module 11

The purpose of this module is to help ESC activists understand social security as a right.

The module

  • provides an historical background to the concept of social security;
  • reviews the current vulnerability of social security in industrialized economies;
  • identifies the elements of a social security system;
  • reviews the main elements of a rights-based approach to social security;
  • analyzes international and national legal instruments addressing social security rights; and
  • considers implementation and enforcement mechanisms.

Historical background

Before states in the North began assuming increasing responsibility for the social security of their citizens, poverty relief and protection against economic insecurity were provided by a variety of private institutions.  These included the extended family, the church, nobility who gave alms to the poor, and trade guilds that pooled their resources in order to protect their members during hard times.  Families bore the primary moral duty of protecting their mem­bers against starvation and destitution.  Relief of distress by social organizations outside the family was a matter of charity.  There was no conception that people were entitled to social assistance as a right.  The "poor laws" adopted in countries such as the United Kingdom rep­resented a rudimentary form of public responsibility for the destitute who were unable to ob­tain assistance from their families.   However, acceptance of poor law relief often involved personal humiliation, the loss of civil rights, and compulsory removal to poor houses.  Hus­band and wife were separated in this process. 

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism from about 1750 destroyed the existing networks of social support.  Individuals now had to sell their labor on the labor markets at the prevailing market rate.  These workers and their families were completely dependent for their livelihood on the regular payment of wages.  Large numbers of laborers were frequently un­employed for long periods without any form of insurance against the risks of work inju­ries, sickness or unemployment.  Families often ended up living in slums in unsanitary and im­poverished conditions.  In Das Kapital, published in 1867, Karl Marx identified the com­modification of labor, which stripped workers of their humanity as a major feature of the capitalist system.  To a large extent, the development of social security systems was an at­tempt to humanize the ravages inflicted by the capitalist system on the working classes.  To protect the urban working classes from destitution, certain protective systems were gradually developed, such as savings bank facilities sponsored by government; placing some obligation on employers to maintain ill and injured workmen; the growth of mutual aid societies; and private insurance providing life policies and funeral benefits.  However, as the International Labour Organization (ILO) has pointed out:

The major social error of the time was the persistence of the optimistic belief that, if workers were left to themselves, they would be willing and able and imaginative enough to cover their risks individually or under some voluntary collective arrange­ment.  The error should have been obvious enough.  Workers were totally absorbed in survival from one day to the next, and hardly had time to consider distant eventuali­ties.  Meeting the certain expenses of today took precedence over saving for the pos­sibilities of tomorrow.  Nor was there anything to spare against the more immediate risks of sickness or unemployment. [1]

Gradually as a result of pressure from workers and other social groups, many states began to play a more active role in developing systems of social protection.  The motivation and po­litical philosophy behind the establishment of these systems, and the particular form that they took, varied significantly in different regions.

The government of the German Chancellor Bismarck was responsible for establishing the first broad system of social insurance between 1883 and 1889.  The system was compulsory for wage earners, and was financed by contributions from workers and employers.  Workers, employers and the state all played a role in the management of the scheme.  Thus workers were protected from destitution and the stigma of poor-law relief by a system of guaranteed benefits.  The benefits received were related to an individual’s monthly contributions.  It should be noted, however, that the purpose of introducing this system was not to bring about greater socioeconomic equality.  The system in fact reinforced the existing socioeconomic stratification by introducing a compulsory and distinctive social insurance system for each of the different classes of workers, e.g., one for blue-color workers, one for agricultural work­ers, one for office workers, one for teachers.  Other countries in Europe followed the example of Germany by developing systems of social insurance for workers.  By the 1930s social in­surance had spread to Latin America, the United States and Canada

A contributory system of unemployment insurance introduced in Britain in 1911 was con­fined initially to just three trades-engineering, shipbuilding, and building and construction.  After World War I, the unemployment insurance system was significantly expanded to other workers.  During the years between the wars, in which there was mass unemployment, a two‑tiered system emerged: unemployment benefits were available as of right for those with insurance, and means‑tested social assistance for those without insurance.  A distinction was created between those claiming social security benefits as of right and those claiming be­cause of need.  This also tracked a pervasive public perception relating to the "deserving" versus the "undeserving" poor.

The development of social security systems in Britain and the United States (and other coun­tries in this tradition) must be viewed against the backdrop of a political commitment to the market mechanism for resolving problems of unemployment and poverty coupled with a deep suspicion of state intervention in market dynamics for social purposes.  There was thus a great reluctance to develop a welfare state in which the state played a major role in guar­anteeing universal access to social security.  The social assistance systems developed in these countries were designed to provide a minimum of social security to the most needy.  Entitle­ment to assistance depended on the applicant demonstrating sufficient neediness by passing a means test.  This often involved a degrading inquiry into the private assets and affairs of the applicant.  Excessive restrictions on access to social security during the period of the Great Depression led to demonstrations and civil unrest.  The welfare state was ultimately instituted in these countries when large‑scale poverty and unemployment threatened to destabilize the prevailing market‑oriented system.

The emergence of "welfare states"

The Scandinavian countries in which socialist‑oriented coalition governments came to power before World War II made significant progress in establishing the social‑democratic model of welfare states.  Poor workers and farmers were able to mobilize political power that was used to establish broad systems of social assistance financed from the general revenue of the country rather than from individual contributions.  The aim of this system was to reduce the inequalities and injustices produced by the capitalist system.  It proceeded from the basis that all people have certain "social rights."  The state is obliged to provide and protect these rights through providing universal access to certain basic social benefits. 

The welfare state in Britain remained relatively small until the end of World War II in 1945, when it was extended substantially in accordance with the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, published in 1942.  The motivating factor behind the creation of the postwar welfare state was to facilitate the reconstruction of a new social order.  The main concern of the Beveridge Report was guaranteeing to everyone a basic minimum income below which no­body would be allowed to fall.  In this way, social security could foster a sense of social in­clusion within society.  In the postwar period, government was also committed to full em­ployment as a primary policy goal based on the new economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. 

Many elements of the welfare state were patriarchal in character.  It was based on the model of a working man, earning a family wage to enable him to support his nonworking wife and other dependents.  In this way, the welfare state mirrored and reinforced the sexual division of labor within society.  The postwar welfare state remained largely intact for more than two decades.  In the period following the recession of 1973, a series of major changes to the sys­tem were effected which represented the decline of the postwar welfare state in Britain.

The impetus for the expansion of social security in the United States came from the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II.  The Social Security Act of 1935 intro­duced pro­grams to meet the risks of old age, death, disability and unemployment.  The main emphasis of the US social security system was to promote the security of workers through social insur­ance.  However, the act also made provision for federal subsidies to support social assistance programs in the states.  The way in which the social security system devel­oped in the United States differed in important ways from the British system.  A fundamental differ­ence was that the US system offers no right to social security for unemployed men who are not eligible for contributory social insurance benefits.  There are growing numbers of workers who do not qualify for social insurance because of rising unemployment and insecure forms of labor.

Social security and social services

A distinction should be made between social security and social services, although the two are closely related and have developed together in many countries.  Social services are based on social work and aim at promoting the welfare, development and social integration of indi­viduals and groups in the community.  They include services aimed at children and youth, the elderly, those living with HIV/AIDS, persons with mental or physical disabilities, and people experiencing personal, family or social problems, e.g., homelessness and substance or alco­hol abuse.  

Social Security-The Current Crisis

The welfare state in many developed countries has come under increasing pressure since the early 1970s as a result of the forces of globalization, economic stagnation and conservative political ideologies.  The opening of domestic economies to global competition has restricted the ability of many governments to implement social policies independently.  The increased mobility of labor, growing unemployment, and the increase in "atypical" forms of employ­ment, including casual labor, temporary work, homework and self‑employment, and have also created the need for new forms of social protection that cannot be accommodated within the traditional social security programs.

The Example of Canada

In 1995, the Canadian government passed legislation repealing the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), which provided for cost?sharing by the government of all social assistance expenditures incurred by the provinces in their social assistance programs. CAP protected important rights of social assistance beneficiaries by requiring provinces to respect these rights as a precondition for receiving full federal cost?sharing. In its submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues (CCPI) described the introduction of CAP in 1966 as "a dramatic step forward in the recognition of a person's right to social assistance when in need." Up to that point provincial programs treated people in poverty as "charity cases." Eligibility for assistance had been uneven, and entitlement to assistance was often characterized by arbitrariness. Also, there were tremendous variations in basic standards within provinces and between provinces. The repeal and replacement of CAP by the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) has removed most of the substantive and procedural protections which CAP ensured throughout Canada. According to the CCPI, the net effect for the poor in Canada from the repeal of CAP has been:

1. The complete loss of the federal legal protections regarding entitlement to social assistance when in need along with the other CAP rights . . . and
2. Related to the loss in (1) above, is an implicit degradation of the poor; the value of their citizenship and their social standing have deteriorated as has the legal recognition of their rights. Moves by the provinces toward treating social assistance as discretionary and social assistance recipients as unworthy are being seen with increasing frequency. This, in turn, feeds public resentment and stigmatization of the poor.2

Governments have also increasingly adopted a political discourse blaming the welfare state for stifling the market, eroding incentives to work, and undermining family and community support systems.  As a result of these pressures and political perspectives, many countries have acted to curb social spending, and to dismantle many components of the social security systems that had been painstakingly constructed over decades.

A downscaling of state responsibility for welfare accompanied by a greater assertion of indi­vidual and community responsibility is another trend in the restructuring of welfare sys­tems in many countries.  The new welfare ideas and policies in the United Kingdom are described in the following terms by Mary Langan:

The welfare policy of the Labour Party, transformed into New Labour under the lead­ership of Tony Blair after 1994, was the clearest indication of a new welfare consen­sus.  The elevation of responsibilities over rights, of individualism over collectivism, and of community over class, arguably revealed the abandonment of the traditions embodied in the post‑war welfare state.  The emphasis on the more authoritarian poli­cies associated with "workfare" rather than the supportive, if paternalistic, traditions of welfarism reflected the degree of Labour’s change.3

She goes on to point out that the debate about the respective merits of selective and universal benefits

tended to obscure the overall deterioration in the real value of benefits, with the resulting impoverishment of a growing number of welfare dependants, and the ten­dency towards the exclusion of people from benefit-and in a sense from society.  These trends were most apparent among young people and lone parents-the targets of the workfare drive-and among old people-casualties of the dramatic decline in the value of state pensions as well as of the expansion of private pension schemes of dubious value.  It was striking that these groups also suffer public denigration, most explicitly in attacks on young beggars or mothers on welfare, but more insidiously in the "demographic timebomb" depiction of old people as a threat to the rest of society.4

Elements of Social Security Systems

Social security systems in many developed countries consist of a combination of two major programs: social insurance and social assistance.

Characteristics of social insurance programs

  • They are financed by contributions.
  • They generate "earned" benefits for work­ers and their families.
  • They provide for various contingencies that interrupt or stop earnings (such as illness, old age, maternity and unem­ployment).

Characteristics of social assistance pro­grams

  • They are non-contributory and met from general revenues.
  • They are designed to supplement the incomes of particularly vulnerable groups (elderly and dis­abled).  In some countries they provide a "safety net" for those who are not able to access social insurance bene­fits.
  • The benefits and eligibility conditions vary from country to country.  The benefits may be either in cash or in-kind in the form of food aid.  The schemes include "income replace­ment schemes" or "cost compensation schemes" that provide complete or partial com­pensation for family care, health care, funeral costs, etc. 

In developed countries social security schemes exist side by side with various private ar­rangements made by people to protect themselves against certain contingencies.  These in­clude private savings, private insurance and pension funds. 

Social Security in Developing Countries

Billions of people in developing countries face severe poverty and deprivation without any form of social security.  In addition to persistent day-to-day deprivation, they are also vulner­able to crises arising from natural calamities, civil war and fluctuations in the economy.  The extended family and kinship ties that traditionally provided support are increasingly breaking down due to economic and social changes, including rapid urban migration.

Faced with large numbers of needy persons and with electoral compulsion, many govern­ments announce promotional or populist measures.  These measures may indicate a symbolic commitment to the problems of poor, and it may be better to have some populist measures rather than no programs for the poor.  However, such schemes tend to lead to corruption, po­litical patronage and waste, and often end up not reaching the intended beneficiaries.  Thus, instead of populist measures based on a particular leader or political party’s whim and fancy, what is needed is a social policy to deal with the question of poverty.   

General characteristics of social security in developing countries

  • Few countries have established comprehensive social security schemes with universal coverage.
  • They tend to target special groups (children, pregnant mothers, etc.).
  • Most schemes deal with emergency relief programs to provide support during calamities. 

Developing countries in their efforts to establish social security systems encounter obstacles such as the scale of poverty, lack of administrative capacity, debt burden and structural ad­justment policies imposed by international financial agencies. (See Module 27.)

Conventional programs that are based on the needs of urbanized wage-earning workers can­not be easily adopted to meet the needs of the large poor rural populations in developing countries.  Similarly, conventional programs are often not suited for meeting the needs of large numbers of people who are working in the informal sector. 

Thus, it is important to take a broader view of social security in situations of poverty and deprivation with an underdeveloped economy.  Social security should be seen as "the pre­vention, by social means, of very low standards of living irrespective of whether these are the result of chronic deprivation or temporary adversity."5

From a broader perspective on social security, the role of public action becomes essential.  It would demand the design of a greater variety of schemes including widows’ pensions and food-for-work programs as well as improvements in sanitation, water supply and education.

An effective and equitable social security system cannot be established in a context in which government is undemocratic and corrupt, and avenues of public protest and participation in the policymaking process are nonexistent. 

What Is Lacking-Funds or Political Commitment?

The neglect of protective social security for the unorganized sector is based on the assumption that the poor are so numerous that a comprehensive cover for them would be financially not viable. As the Human Development Report of 1991 says, "The lack of political commitment, not financial resources, is the real cause of human neglect." For example, in the case of India, it is estimated that 0.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product would be sufficient to provide for those below the poverty line, who are unable to contribute towards their social security. With 0.3 percent of GDP, a minimum package of social assistance encompassing old age pension, maternity benefit, and survivor benefit could be provided to the entire eligible population.6

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1. International Labour Organization, Introduction to Social Security (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1984), 2.

 2. The Charter Committee on Poverty Issues (CCPI), Submissions to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights re: The Review of the Third Report of Canada at the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 19th Session (November-December, 1998), 16 November 1998, 10.

3. M. Langan, "The Contested Concept of Need, in Welfare: Need, Rights and Risks, ed. M. Langan (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 27-28.

4. Ibid.

5. R. Burgess and N. Ster, Social Security in Developing Countries: What, Why, Who and How?, ed. E. Ahmed et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 43-47.

 6. Kathyayini Chamaraj, "Why Nothing Changes for the Poor," The Hindu, 19 January 1999.

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