On the 20th February 2013, the European Commission adopted its long-awaited Social Investment Package (SIP) for Growth and Cohesion. The SIP builds on the idea that welfare systems have contributed to improving social outcomes but are now seized up by the consequences of demographic change and of the financial and economic crisis. It argues that in the context of a shrinking labour force and increasing dependency ratios, it is essential for Member States to ‘prepare’ people to confront life’s risks, rather than simply ‘repairing’ the consequences and to support the social economy. Will this be enough to safeguard the European social model?
The concept of ‘Social investment’ or ‘Socially Responsible Investing’ is not new. Its modern definition dates back from the 1960s and can be summarised as the provision and use of capital to generate social as well as financial returns. Confronted with the aftermath of the worst socioeconomic crisis in generations, EU decision-makers see social Investment as a promising growth market given the increasing number of people who are interested in using profit for social good. The Social Investment Package thus seeks to help Member States nurture this trend while using their social and health budgets more efficiently and effectively, through best practices and guidance. The SIP addresses 7 key topics: children, Active Inclusion, Social Services, Long-Term Care, Homelessness, the European Social Fund and Health.
The policy framework introduced by the SIP involves the development of integrated, more cost-effective and adequate public services which revolve around activating and enabling policies informed by a life-course perspective. More than this, the package calls for the development of new support schemes, incentives for start-ups and enabling regulatory environments for the social enterprise sector. One could therefore wonder whether the idea is to foster social capital and innovation in Europe or to shrink the welfare state. Well… probably a bit of both! At the heart of this change is the thought that growing social value is good business and good business grows social value.
Accessible quality early childhood education and care services can in principle contribute to increasing female employment and at the same time tackling childhood disadvantage at an early stage. Similarly, innovative approaches to homelessness – such as Housing First – can save people’s lives from deteriorating further, and provide the best chances for reintegrating them into society. These are a few of the examples used to promote the social value of responsible investment. More importantly, these examples are more cost-effective. In addition, well-designed welfare systems can protect people from hardship, work as a safety net, develop people’s skills and improve their ability to participate in society and the labour market.
The question is – is the public health community up to this challenge?
The Social Investment Package not only provides a new EU policy framework for reforming, sustaining and strengthening EU social protection and health systems. In doing so, it also offers numerous opportunities to implement the health in all policies approach through the development and scaling-up of innovative, integrated approaches – provided that these reveal cost-effective. In the field of health, the social economy could offer pathways for patient-centred, universal, equitable and yet cost-effective health services while giving proper attention to health promotion and disease prevention. This nevertheless presupposes an ability to reach across sectors and identify win-win options.