Welfare system under pressure

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New statistics show that half of Norway’s population now receives some form of welfare payments, from disability or unemployment benefits to child-care assistance. Only 50 percent rely solely on their jobs for a living, reports newspaper Aftenposten , and that’s putting new pressure on the already-strained social welfare state.

Norway continues to be considered a wealthy nation, thanks in large part to its offshore oil and gas income. That, along with decades of a largely socialist political system and strict taxation, has led to the creation of a generous welfare system that provides such benefits as nearly a year of paid maternity and paternity leave, child-care payments (called kontantstøtte ) for familes who opt against sending their children to day care centers, plus disability, sick-leave and pension income.

Newspaper Aftenposten cited a report by state statistics bureau SSB showing that 50 percent of the population currently work for their total income, receiving no extra state-funded benefits. Among immigrants, the amount was 42 percent, and 33 percent for immigrants from non-western countries.

“Tempting”

Part of that is linked to a jump in asylum seekers arriving in Norway in recent years, most of whom aren’t legally allowed to work, and immigrants, many of whom have to wait months while their applications for work permits are being processed. The number of guest workers in Norway, who came from other European countries during the economic boom that ended last year, also increased dramatically. New regulations make them eligible for the same welfare benefits accorded Norwegians.

“The welfare system in Norway is so good that it can be tempting for those who lose their jobs to stay here instead of traveling back to their home countries,” Steven Meglitsch, an adviser to a group that promotes relations between immigrants and the authorities, told Aftenposten .Recent reports from immigration agency UDI,however, indicate that thousands have indeed left the country during the current economic downturn, and that there have been double-digit declines in foreigners’ work-permit renewals.

Norwegians still the biggest beneficiaries

The vast majority of welfare benefits in Norway are still collected by Norwegians, but government officials reportedly are alarmed by the amount collected by some immigrants. In some cases, it can be more lucrative for a family with many children to collect welfare than to work, not least because immigrants are often relegated to low-paying jobs. Several immigrants interviewed by Aftenposten said themselves that Norwegian social workers had arranged the welfare payments for immigrants, and that state officials should instead encourage Norway’s new residents to find work and assume responsibility for themselves and their families.

Most concede that Norwegian welfare programs are attractive and vulnerable to exploitation. A new government commission is evaluating whether changes need to be made in the current welfare system, and several political parties are already calling for an end to the funding for child-care called kontantstøtte , which pays a parent who stays home to look after their children. Others are urging more frequent screening of those on disability, and new rules that would allow asylum seekers and new immigrants to work shortly after their arrival.

“Norway has to try to take care of its welfare system, without making a fool of itself,” said Meglitsch.