Who’s helping me? Perceptions of social safety nets during COVID-19

The health pandemic has led to another crisis: that of economic insecurity. To improve understanding of how policies work and generate buy-in, successful social policy reform will require not only smart design but also effective communication. Banner image: Shutterstock/ VectorMine

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It comes as no surprise to learn that most people in OECD countries were stressed about their health and finances in 2020. With the pandemic devastating lives and livelihoods, how could we not have been?

But there’s a difference between feelings and statistics, between anecdotes and data. At the OECD, we conduct the biennial Risks that Matter (RTM) survey in order to measure, in a rigorous and comparable way, people’s perceptions of social and economic risks – and how well people feel their government addresses those risks. In 2020, we surveyed 25 000 people in 25 OECD countries. We found that insecurity runs deep.

Across countries, 2 out of 3 people report feeling worried about their household’s economic security this year. Six out of 10 worry about becoming ill or disabled, and a similar share worry about making ends meet. Looking beyond the next decade, 7 out of 10 fear they won’t be able to afford retirement, while more than 6 out of 10 are concerned about securing good-quality long-term care for themselves or their family members. These risk perceptions reflect not only the impact of pandemic, but also issues around population aging and economic insecurity that existed long before the current crisis.

At the same time, we know that governments in OECD countries massively expanded their social protection systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending data are still being collected cross-nationally, so it hard to assess the exact size and shape of the welfare programmes that expanded or developed during COVID-19. But it is safe to say that 2020 will represent the largest growth in most OECD welfare states since the aftermath of World War II.

Given these unprecedented efforts, it is therefore somewhat surprising how dissatisfied most people are with their government’s level of social protection.

Risks that Matter 2020 reveals that only about 1 in 3 people are confident that government income supports would get them through serious financial troubles. Instead, most report that they would count on personal networks of family and friends. And many feel that social benefits are out of their reach: nearly 50% of respondents report that they feel they would not be able to access public benefits if they needed them. Within this group, most say they do not know whether they would even qualify for benefits. Across countries, about 50% of respondents say that their government does not take into account their views – or the views of people like them – when designing and reforming social policies.

Only 1 in 5 people feel that government incorporates their views

% reporting that they agree or disagree that their government incorporates their views or the views of people like them when designing or reforming public benefits, 2020% reporting that they agree or disagree that their government incorporates their views or the views of people like them when designing or reforming public benefits, 2020

Note: Respondents were asked to what degree they feel government incorporates their views or the views of people like them. Answer choices were “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” and “cannot choose.” Figure presents aggregations of “strongly disagree” with “disagree” and “agree” with “strongly agree.”

Source: OECD Secretariat estimates based on the OECD Risks that Matter 2020 survey, https://www.oecd.org/social/risks-that-matter.htm

These attitudes towards social protection are part of a broader distrust of government: in 2020, only half of people in 26 OECD countries reported that they trust their government (Government at a Glance 2021).

Despite this dissatisfaction, support for a government safety net remains high throughout the OECD. People still expect government to help them. On average, more than two-thirds of all respondents say they think government should be doing more to ensure their economic and social security.

As OECD countries inch towards the end of the pandemic, the design and reform of social protection systems will continue to be a pressing policy discussion. The Risks that Matter project illustrates that successful social policy reform will require not only smart design – with effective coverage and delivery – but also effective communication with public stakeholders. This communication is necessary not only to improve understanding of how policies work, but also to generate buy-in. Without public engagement and clear communication, OECD governments risk prolonging the recovery and leaving vulnerable populations behind for years to come.

Read the full paper: "The 2020 OECD Risks That Matters Survey" and find out more about how to better adapt social protection to a world characterised by rapidly changing risks and opportunities

Valerie Frey

Economist, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD

Valerie Frey is an economist in the OECD's Directorate for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs. Her research has focused on public opinion on economic risks and governance, social programme evaluation, and female labour force participation. Valerie is the lead researcher and project manager of the cross-national “Risks that Matter” household survey. Prior to the joining the OECD, Valerie worked as a consultant for the World Bank Governance and Public Sector Management Group and as a research assistant at Yale University. She earned a Ph.D. from Yale University.