2021 | Nov
On 1 February 2017, a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) . was rolled out across Greece following two pilot tests in 2014-2015 and in 2016. GMIs are assistance schemes entailing means tested regular non-contributory cash benefits to households identified as poor. The GMI was sorely needed in a country with a weakly, both formal and informal, redistributive social protection system. It selectively covered the needs of some categories of the population, mainly in the public sector, leaving the family, solidarity networks and small scale businesses make up for the shortfall in social policy (Lyberaki and Prontzas, 2015; Petmesidou and Mossialos, 2006). This fragmented and unfair system was not designed to cushion the social consequences of the economic changes of recent decades, much less so those of the “internal devaluation” (wage cuts, tax increases, cuts in public services, deregulation of the labour market, etc.) of the 2010s. Indeed, Greece is the European country most hit by the Great Recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, and by three structural adjustment programmes (2010, 2012, 2015) that led to a forced and prolonged economic and social depression. Figure 1 shows a collapse of GDP of great amplitude starting in 2008, rare in peacetime conditions.
As a result, there has been a dramatic increase of poverty, both relative and extreme . Population at risk of poverty and social exclusion rose from 20% in 2008 to well over 48% in 2015 and in 2019 hovers just above 40% (2008 being the baseline) (figure 2). Available studies indicate for 2015 and 2017 that about 15% of Greeks were extremely poor (they were 2.2% in 2009) (Matsaganis et al., 2016; World Bank [WB] 2019).
Figure 2: At risk of poverty rate anchored 2008
This paper presents some results of a case study carried out over the period 2017-2019 by the authors in the Piraeus regional unit . We investigated the implementation of the GMI in Keratsini-Drapetsona and Perama, two municipalities hard hit first by a long phase of deindustrialisation, and thereafter by the Great Recession of the 2010s. The research focused on the management of the scheme, on the beneficiaries’ perceptions of the support provided by the programme and the resulting improvements, if any, in their daily lives. Data relating to the GMI were gathered through iterative field observations at the social services and 43 semi-structured (some of them serial) interviews throughout the period with mayors and the municipal staff, NGO workers, community activists and local agents engaged in solidarity structures (such as food distribution and defence of over-indebted people) and with some national level agents. We also talked informally (without recording the conversations) with beneficiaries during their waiting periods on the sites of the social services and interviewed precariously employed people (identified by the snowball method). Interviews were usually face-to-face, mostly involving the two researchers. The study also relied on a desk review of International Organisations’ reports, on primary and secondary sources and on macro-statistical indicators.
Map 1: The zone of interest
Extending the case study
We interpreted our data using the extended case study method (Burawoy, 1998) in order to highlight the interconnection between external social forces (the European and international context) and social developments in the two municipalities. Indeed, the Greek GMI is part of a global and European framework for (re)constructing social protection policies following the deleterious effects of structural adjustment programmes in the South (e.g. the Lost Decade in Latin America), and the emergence of new risks and needs arising from fundamental changes in the labour market and ageing populations. Sometimes referred to as a paradigm shift (Hemerijck, 2018) from the neoliberal approach exclusively focused on the market and reduced public spending, a new “pro-poor” development model became consensual in the 2000s among major supra- and international organisations. It spread in the South as well as in the North, fuelled by the growing involvement and influence of the World Bank in the field of social policies (Deacon, 2007). Based on the concept of social investment , this model aims to prevent or alleviate poverty and social exclusion by reducing the coverage gaps between “insiders” and “outsiders” while reaffirming (and reinventing) the principle of universality of social protection .
The new global model
At the base of the new architecture, Social Protection Floors (SPFs) (ILO, 2012) or their European equivalent, the 2017 European Pillar of Social Rights  guarantee minimum benefits for the poor, among which GMI-type solidarity income and labour market activation programmes play a key role. The WB and the EU see Floors as the substructure of “universal social protection” (USP) systems in which different types of public, private or community schemes protect different groups against specific risks over the life course (ILO and WB, 2015). Thus, it would be possible to limit and rationalise public spending cutting back on social spending deemed unproductive and redirecting available funds to those categories of the population that promise to have the greatest impact on future economic growth: on children to break the cycle of poverty transmission, on women and, beyond that, on marginalised fractions of society that lack the resources to cope with hardship and “new risks”. This “investment” is supposed to have a ”springboard” effect: it would allow the poor to become “risk-takers” in the market and thereby contribute to economic development (WB, 2001).
According to the institutional literature, Floors and Pillars have ambitious normative objectives. They aim to empower the poor, promote a better life and health for all in dignity, and rebuild stronger and more cohesive societies less prone to shocks. Yet, do the schemes created to this end really achieve, or at least come close to these goals? This fundamental issue underpins our research.
The Greek GMI Programme
The Greek GMI programme is organised around three “pillars” corresponding to (1) a regressive allowance not exceeding € 200 for one person, €100 for each additional adult and €50 per minor child; (2) in-kind social benefits (food distribution, discounts on electricity bills, access to public healthcare); (3) and job-seeking assistance. GMI applications are carried out by the social services or community centres at the municipalities or directly by claimants. They are processed through a computer programme capable of cross-referencing online data, that is, verify and validate information through several electronic platforms and identify the applicant through the tax return system. The platform is constantly updated to incorporate knowledge (other online data, errors or failures detected through regular inspections, information from municipalities, evaluations, seminars, and so on).
Eligibility criteria vary according to the size of the household. Income during the six months preceding the application must not exceed six times the amount of the allowance (e.g. €1,200 for a single person); criteria for ownership include the taxable value of real estate, the objective value of all types of private vehicles, and total bank or cash deposits (a ceiling of €4,800 for a single person). These very restrictive eligibility criteria are meant to cover about 7 percent of the population under the threshold of extreme poverty (the 15 percent “extreme poor”) (WB, 2019a; for comprehensive accounts, see among others Lalioti, 2017; Dimoulas, 2018; Sakellaropoulos et al 2018, 2019).
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