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The French RSA benefit: lack of access a far greater problem than fraud

Published in June 2022 and updated in June 2022
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In spring 2022, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron sparked controversy by proposing a reform of the conditions and obligations for recipients of the “Revenu de Solidarité Active” benefit (RSA). The head of state, who has been since re-elected, wished to introduce an “obligation to work fifteen to twenty hours per week”, to encourage the unemployed to find a job.

For some, it is a shameless idea to increase the burden of blame on victims of the pandemic and economic crisis. Threatened by poverty, they have to deal with diminishing purchasing power more than anyone else, and they must be supported by automatic, unconditional benefits. Others believe that access to employment must be the priority and it is important to reform the non-monetary side of the RSA, to strengthen support services for recipients as well as reviews of their situation..

 

Emmanuel Macron proposes a reform of the RSA benefit with “15 to 20 hours” of weekly work (Public Sénat, 17 March 2022).

 

This debate undeniably has an ideological and even political dimension. However, it is an important topic, from the perspective of both research and public policy.

Rising suspicion

As raised by this report from the Court of Auditors, the number of beneficiaries has constantly increased each year since the RSA was implemented in 2009, as was the case with the previous programme, the “Revenu Minimum d’Insertion” (RMI) (see graph). The pandemic has caused a blip in the evolution of this trend, which is slowly going down at present, but the trend is still there, alongside the rise in the duration of unemployment. However, if this trend is considered unsustainable, it is mainly not from a budgetary point of view.

In 2020, the RSA represented a source of revenue for 2.1 million households, i.e. over 4 million people with spouses and dependent children, for an annual public expenditure of €15 billion when added to the cost of the employment bonus and support services. This represents less than 0.75% of GDP. The average amount is €7,000 per year, per household, making it one of the cheapest public benefits in relation to its social impact.

 

 

Alongside the increase in the number of beneficiaries, public opinion has also changed with regard to the most disadvantaged members of society. Multiple factors have come together, in particular confirming rising suspicion of welfare recipients.

A 2018 survey from Crédoc indicated that a large majority of French people believed that the French social security body “Caisse d’Allocations Familiales” (CAF) did not sufficiently check the situations of welfare beneficiaries. Over 80% of people shared this sentiment in 2018, versus 64% twenty years earlier.

According to a more recent survey from Unédic, the majority of French people consider that jobseekers have difficulties finding work as they are not willing to make concessions in their search. Furthermore, 55% of respondents believe unemployed people choose not to work to avoid the risk of losing their unemployment benefits.

 

How do French people see unemployment and the unemployed? (unedictv, February 2022).

 

Lastly, political analysts Vincent Dubois and Marion Lieutaud studied mentions of welfare fraud using a corpus of 1,108 parliamentary questions posed between 1986 and 2017. From being rare, or even non-existent at the beginning of the period, they progressively increased to become a separate theme of political debate. How these questions were formulated reveals a progressive hardening of positions, particularly towards the most disadvantaged members of society, and a simultaneous weakening of critical discourse around such trends.

Fraud remains an exception

The contrast appears very clear between this rising sentiment and the results of review operations implemented by institutions in charge of monitoring beneficiaries. Said reviews show that fraud is concentrated among a very small minority of beneficiaries, committed by certain organised networks in particular. According to the Court of Auditors, the total amount of unwarranted welfare represented 3.2% of benefit payments. Cases do exist, and they receive wide media coverage, but they still represent the exception. While it is important to fight such offences, the role of the public authority is not to maintain a climate of suspicion hanging over the vast majority of recipients who do respect the rules.

On the complete opposite side of things, social science research into the RSA shows that predominantly, a large number of eligible people do not access social welfare aimed to support low-income households. This means that, in reality, a significant number of households who are entitled to welfare do not receive it. This mainly is because they do not make an application.

There are many reasons for this, including the difficulties involved in administrative procedures and the stigmatisation attached to making such a request: in 2018, one-third of households eligible for the RSA did not access it each trimester and 1 in 5 households for the entire year. Furthermore, non-access affects the most vulnerable groups in the target population, such as homeless people.

Reviews with unexpected effects

The rising suspicion towards welfare beneficiaries has however led to an intensification in surveillance and imposing certain requirements for their professional and social integration. In exchange for benefit payments, recipients have obligations at different stages, such as signing a contract of commitment or a personal project, then participating in integration initiatives (social or professional). Participation in these initiatives, however, remains low for reasons partially related to the difficulties encountered by departments in organising support services in a satisfactory manner.

To encourage participation, certain department have modified their social action policy. A controlled experiment was set up in Seine-et-Marne. It involved varying the content of letters inviting beneficiaries to sign up for support services. However, simplifying the letters and adding encouraging elements did not substantially increase the participation rate for integration initiatives.

Another department chose a more coercive programme, consisting of reviewing the situation of all recipients and sending a warning message, followed by a sanction in the form of reduced benefits if the situation did not change. The warning letters significantly increased participation in the first stages of integration programmes. But they also increased the number of people exiting the RSA system.

The study does not show whether this was due to finding a job or whether people stopped their benefits despite still being eligible. However, it seems likely that such reviews discourage benefit recipients and increase the level of non-access. A higher number of reviews increases the costs for recipients to access benefits, which may lead them to give up the payments and associated integration programmes, i.e. the exact opposite of the objective pursued.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a powerful reminder of the resilience of the model of French social protection, capable of tackling a huge economic and social crisis. It demonstrated that the risks of losing your job and falling into poverty apply to the entire population, and that it is necessary to have a mechanism for protection and community assistance. In the current debate, it is not only the monetary side of things that must be reformed, but also the way in which recipients are supported and the means that such support is allocated, to better decrease social vulnerability.

Identity card of the article

Title:The French RSA benefit: lack of access a far greater problem than fraud
Authors:By Yannick L’Horty, Rémi Le Gall and Sylvain Chareyron
Publisher:French version published by The Conversation France. See the original article. English version is published by Reflexscience.
Collection:The Conversation France
Date:July 2022
Languages:English (a French version is available)
Keywords:employment, fraud, poverty, welfare benefits, Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA), disadvantage, social protection, social system