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Safety Nets: An International Comparison

According to the International Labour Organization website, only 27 percent of the global population has adequate access to social protection programs and more than half the world’s population does not have access at all.[1] In industrially developed countries, social protection systems or “safety nets” are common pro- grams created to prevent poverty, reduce social and economic inequality, and provide access to healthcare and education. Among these nations, there is a vast range in the type and amount of social protection offered. The United States, the world’s largest economy forecast to exceed $21 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019,[2] provides far fewer social protections than other industrially developed nations.

This graphic essay offers an international comparison across social protection programs, including unemployment insurance, pensions, worker compensation, disability insurance,  paid leave, and health coverage.[3] It also includes some statistics that add context to the overall comparison between countries, including data on employment, union density, and poverty rates.[4] To create comparable graphs, the essay draws on data collected from a single source, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). While the OECD has 34 countries as members, this analysis focuses on ten countries with some of the highest GDPs: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[5]

Among   the   ten   countries   compared, the United States commits an average of 18 percent of its GDP to social safety net spending, com- pared to the highest, France at 31 percent and the lowest, Switzerland at 16 percent.[6] The United States and Switzerland are tied as the countries with the second highest level of private spending on social services, at 12 percent, directly behind the Netherlands at 13 percent.[7] In keeping with its tendency to rely on the private sector to ameliorate hardships, the U.S. government spends below average on unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and worker compensation.[8] It is also the country with the lowest GDP public spending on labor market programs, which provide services for employees, job training, and job creation.[9] Perhaps most significant is that the United States is the only country that does not provide either automatic or compulsory health insurance to the entire population.[10] Only 32 percent of the U.S. population has compulsory coverage, while 64 percent of the U.S. population has voluntary coverage, and 16 percent of the U.S. population is uninsured.[11]

Other comparisons show that the United States also falls behind in protecting the well- being of women. Tied with Canada as the country with the second highest gender wage gap, the United States is the only country that offers zero weeks of paid leave for mothers, whereas the other countries in this comparison offer between fourteen and fifty-eight weeks.[12]

The United States has the second lowest employment rate, particularly among women.[13] However, seniors in the United States continue to work past the expected age of retirement at comparatively high rates, perhaps owing to their high rates of poverty. Seniors at or below the poverty line in the United States are not alone since the United States also has the highest overall income poverty rate among these large economies, with a rate of 17.8 percent. While these indicators corroborate the U.S. values of privatized systems of care, the comparisons also show that a lack of social safety net protections correlates to higher economic and social inequity. The fact that the United States has the second lowest union density rates among the world’s largest economies[14] may in turn explain both its gaping inequalities and the dearth of social protections.

 

Figure 1. Employment rate, percentage of the total working population, 2018 or latest available. Source: “Employment Rate” OECD, 2018. https://data.oecd.org/emp/employment-rate.htm
Figure 2. Employment rate by gender, percentage of the total working population, 2018 or latest available. Source: “Employment Rate” OECD, 2018. https://data.oecd.org/emp/employment-rate.htm
Figure 3. Trade union density, percentage of total population, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Trade Union density in OECD countries” OECD Stat, 2018. https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx? DataSetCode=TUD
Figure 4. Gender wage gap across countries, percentage of full-time employees, 2017 or latest available. Source: “Gender Wage Gap,” OECD Data, 2018, https:// data.oecd.org/earnwage/gender-wage-gap.htm
Figure 5. Public spending on unemployment, percentage of GDP, 2015 or latest available. Source: “Public Unemployment Spending,” OECD Data, 2018, https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/public-unemployment- spending.htm#indicator-chart
Note: Data for Denmark were unavailable.

Figure 6. Spending on labor market program, percentage of GDP, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Public Spending on Labour Markets,” OECD Data, 2018, https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/public-spending-on- labour-markets.htm#indicator-chart
Note: Public spending on labor market programs includes services for public employees, trainings, hiring subsidies, and direct job creation.
Figure 7. Income poverty rate for the population 66 years or older, 2017 or latest available. Source: “Poverty Rate,” OECD Data, 2018, https://data.oecd.org/inequality/poverty-rate.htm.
Note: The poverty rate is the ratio of the number of citizens in a given group whose income has fallen below the poverty line, which is half the median income for the total population. This chart compares the poverty rate for citizens of 66 years or above compared to the income poverty rate for the entire population for each country.
Figure 8. Labor force participation rate for the population 65 years or older, 2017 or latest available. Source: “Labour force participation rate” OECD Data, 2018. https://data.oecd.org/emp/labour-force-participation-rate. htm#indicator-chart
Figure 9. Public spending on pensions, percentage of GDP, 2015 or latest available. Source: “Pension Spending,” OECD Data, 2018, https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/pension-spending.htm#indicator-chart
Figure 10. Spending on public social expenditures and benefits, percentage of GDP, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Social Spending” OECD Data, 2018.https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/social-spending.htm
Note: Social spending includes redistribution of resources to low-income households and those who are disabled, sick, unemployed, and so forth. Public spending includes all social benefits from federal, state, and local government sources.
Figure 11. Private spending on social expenditures and benefits, percentage of GDP, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Social Spending” OECD Data, 2018.https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/social-spending.htm
Note: Social spending includes redistribution of resources to low-income households and those who are disabled, sick, unemployed, and so forth. Private spending includes all social benefits provided from non-government sources.
Figure 12. Spending on disability insurance, percentage of GDP, 2015 or latest available. Source: “Public spending on incapacity” OECD Data, 2018. https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/public-spending-on-incapacity.htm #indicator-chart
Note: The data include all public spending due to disability, temporary illness, or occupational injury.
Figure 13. Total paid leave available to mothers, length in weeks, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Key characteristics of parental leave systems” OECD Family Database, 2017. https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/ PF2_1_ Parental_leave_systems.pdf
Note: Paid leave includes all federal paid maternity, parental, or home care leave available to mothers. Data do not include state or local paid leave.
Figure 14. Basic primary health coverage, 2016 or latest available. Source: “Health Systems Characteristics” OECD Health, 2018. http://www.oecd.org/health/health-systems/ characteristics.htm
Note: Automatic coverage (or tax financed) refers to national or local health insurance systems. Countries with compulsory health insurance legally require citizens to have insurance.

 

AUTHOR BIO

Samantha Valente is a researcher who lives in New York City. She holds a BA in Women’s Labor History from Hampshire College and an MA in Labor Studies from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

NOTES


[1] “Social Protection,” International Labour Organization, available at https://www.ilo.org/ global/topics/social-security/lang–en/index.htm.
[2] “Forecast of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Fiscal Years 2016 to  2028  (in Billion U.S. Dollars),” Statista, available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/216985/ forecast-of-us-gross-domestic-product/.
[3] See Figures 5, 9, 12, 13, and 14, respectively.
[4] See Figures 1, 2, 3, and 7, respectively.
[5] The thirty-four OECD countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
[6] See Figure 10, Source: “Social Spending,” OECD Data, 2018, available at https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/social-spending.htm.
[7] See Figure 11, Source: “Social Spending,” OECD Data, 2018, available at https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/social-spending.htm.
[8] See Figure 12, Source: “Public Spending on Incapacity,” OECD Data, 2018, available at https://data.oecd.org/socialexp/public-spending-on-incapacity.htm#indicator-chart.
[9] See Figure 8, Source: “Labour Force Participation Rate,” OECD Data, 2018, avail- able at https://data.oecd.org/emp/labor-force-participation-rate.htm#indicator-chart.
[10] Japan insures 98.5% of its population with compulsory coverage, only 1.5% of the population is not insured.
[11] See Figure 14, Source: “Health Systems Characteristics,” OECD Health, 2018, available at http://www.oecd.org/health/health-systems/ characteristics.htm.
[12] See Figure 13, Source:  “Key Characteristics of Parental Leave Systems,” OECD Family Database, 2018, available at http://www.oecd.org/els/family/database.htm.
[13] See Figures 1 and 2, Source: “Employment Rate,” OECD, 2018, available at https://data.oecd.org/emp/employment-rate.htm.
[14] See Figure 3, Source:  “Trade Union Density in OECD Countries,” OECD Statistics, 2018, available at https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TUD.

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