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POVERTY

Five percent of Swedes on sickness benefits

Nearly one in ten Swedes in their forties is currently receiving some type of benefit due to illness or disability, according to a new report.

Five percent of Swedes on sickness benefits

New figures from Sweden’s Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) show that the number of Swedes between 40- and 49-years-old receiving either sickness compensation (sjukersättning) has nearly doubled since 1991, the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper reports.

At the end of 2008, around 530,000 people, more than 5 percent people of Sweden’s entire population, were receiving one of the two benefits — sickness compensation or activity compensation (aktivitetsersättning) — designed to compensate people who can no longer work full time due to illness or injury.

Of that figure, 150,000 were receiving only partial benefits.

Activity compensation is available to people between 19- and 29-years old and is intended to “support young people who cannot work due to illness or some other disability”, according to the agency.

Sickness compensation, on the other hand, is available to workers aged 30 and above who have had their ability to work permanently reduced by at least a quarter due to illness or disability.

Sickness compensation can be partial, permanent, or time-limited.

In drawing up the report, Försäkringskassan analyzed what led people to start accepting benefits and how their economic situation has changed from 1991 to 2006.

The figures haven’t changed appreciably since 2006, said Ulrik Lidwall, an analyst with the agency, told the newspaper.

He is concerned, however, that Swedes are starting to take sickness compensation at increasingly younger ages and that the number of households with children included among those who rely on benefits payments to survive has more than tripled since 1991, from 8,000 to 27,000.

The investigation also revealed that one in three single parents with sickness compensation has a low standard of living, compared with less than one in ten from the early 1990s.

“It’s really tragic because we’re talking about people who have a long time left before they reach retirement,” Lidwall told DN.

“You have to be careful not to generalize, but the economic situation for many people with sickness compensation increases the risk that many children will be deprived of a good start in life.”

In addition, the value of sickness and activity compensation benefits are only guaranteed to increase along with general price rises, meaning the purchasing power of benefits recipients is successively eroded in comparison to workers who see their wages increase faster than the pace of inflation.

“An early entry into sickness and activity compensation brings with it a much greater risk for a life of relative poverty. In the long run, it can also lead to a significantly lower standard of living as a pensioner,” said Lidwall in a statement.

Sweden’s social insurance minister Cristina Husmark Pehrsson agrees.

“There ought to be a law prohibiting young people who have had activity compensation from automatically receiving sickness compensation when they turn 30. It creates a risk for a permanent poverty trap,” she told the TT news agency.

In September, the government announced the allocation of 17 billion kronor ($2.36 billion) in the autumn budget for initiatives to prepare the long-term sick for a return to the workplace.

Earlier that month, the Social Insurance Agency released figures showing that 4,400 Swedes lost their right to sickness benefits in the first half of 2009 as the agency tightened its regulations.

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POVERTY

Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain

A year after the pandemic hit Spain, the need for food handouts has soared in the country, especially by workers in the sectors hit hardest by the economic crisis that followed.

Queuing for food handouts: How the pandemic has left thousands more going hungry in Spain
Reina Chambi, 39, queues to receive food aid outside San Ramon Nonato parish in Madrid. Photos: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Although her face is covered by a black mask, Rita Carrasco still wears bright red lipstick. But her easy smile faltered when she had to join Madrid’s “hunger lines” for food aid.

“It was a hard moment. I felt shame,” says the 41-year-old Mexican, who lost her job as a theatre teacher when Spain’s tight lockdown began in March 2020.

Since then, she has not been able to find work and has used up all her savings.

Over the past year, the demand for food packages has soared in Spain, especially among those employed in sectors worst-hit by the resulting economic crisis.

Last year, the Catholic charity Caritas said it helped half a million people who had never before asked for food packages.

Since December, Carrasco (pictured above) has been going every Friday to a soup kitchen in Carabanchel, a working-class neighbourhood in southern Madrid, to collect a box of groceries.

She also helps distribute food as a volunteer.

“Giving and receiving changes your perspective,” she says.

Beans and fruit

Wearing yellow vests, the volunteers hand out fruit, cereal and beans at a church building to those lining up in a narrow street outside.

The neighbourhood has a high immigrant population and many in the queue are Latin American women.

People used to be able to eat a hot meal onsite, but virus restrictions now mean they can only serve food to take away.

It is one of four soup kitchens opened last spring by the Alvaro del Portillo charity.

Before the pandemic, there was only one, which served around 900 people.

Since then the number of people using the soup kitchens has soared to around 2,000.

“As the months have gone by, we’ve noticed things easing,” says Susana Hortigosa, who runs the charity.

“Although the level of demand is still higher than before the pandemic, it has dropped slightly because people have started getting their furlough payouts or have found a few hours of work” as the economy has picked up, although most still need help, she says.

The leftwing coalition government of Pedro Sanchez has unblocked €40 billion ($48 billion) since the start of the crisis to fund the furlough scheme.

But with the administration overrun with claims, it has often taken months for the payouts to materialise.

‘A great help’

Such was the case with Reina Chambi (pictured below), a 39-year-old carer for the elderly whose husband was employed at a hotel. When the pandemic hit, they were both left jobless.

“My husband stopped working completely and they took a long time to make the furlough payment so we had to turn to the church for help,” says the mother-of-two, waiting outside a soup kitchen in the freezing wind in the Vallecas district.

While the payout has given the family some breathing room, the couple are still jobless, meaning they still need food packages.

“It’s a great help because we don’t have to buy milk, chickpeas, noodles, those things at least. And we can spend (the payout) on detergent or meat,” says Chambi, who misses the “stable life” she enjoyed after arriving from Bolivia 15 years ago.

Even before 2019, official figures showed more than one in four people in Spain were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, one of the highest rates in Europe.

And the pandemic has left the most vulnerable even more at risk.

“It’s so frustrating. Each time I try to escape this situation, something else happens,” sighs Amanda Gomez, 53.

Divorced just before the pandemic, she is raising two children on her own, one with Down’s Syndrome, on a cleaner’s tiny salary.

But she’s not ready to give up — a keen cook, she’s looking up recipes online to “make the most” of the food she’s got, and she is also beginning to bake cakes to order and deliver them to people’s homes.

The hope is that one day she might be able to open her own bakery.

“You dream big because dreaming doesn’t cost anything,” she says.

“What I want is to be able to go to the local church without asking for anything. Just to help out.”

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