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Did bigger and better benefits during the pandemic ease people’s money worries?

New data from 25 countries reveal why many people aren’t reassured by government measures

Cars line up for food donations in December 2020 at a school in Takoma Park, Md. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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The coronavirus pandemic has spurred perhaps the largest welfare-state expansion among developed countries since the post-World War II recovery. Governments quickly expanded the coverage of social programs and implemented a battery of emergency measures to save lives and livelihoods.

Nonetheless, as our new research shows, a majority of people in the world’s wealthiest countries still feel deeply insecure. Many remain skeptical of government support — and most want more social protections. Here’s what we found.

People don’t think their government is doing enough to help

We work at an intergovernmental organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the biennial Risks That Matter (RTM) survey. This survey measures people’s perceptions of social and economic risks and how well they think their government addresses those risks.

We recently examined 25,000 people’s economic health across 25 member countries of the OECD. (Descriptions of the survey’s non-probability sampling method, coverage and questionnaires are available here.)

Much of what we found is unsurprising. Two-thirds of all respondents across countries are worried about their economic security. Six out of 10 worry about becoming ill, and a similar share worry about making ends meet in the next year or two. Looking beyond the next decade, 72 percent of respondents fear they won’t be able to afford retirement, and 6 out of 10 worry about securing good-quality long-term care for themselves or their family members.

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In the face of these worries, most people think their government isn’t doing enough to protect them. In fact, a strong majority of respondents across the OECD — 67 percent — want more government spending to ensure economic security. The national numbers vary from 41 percent in Denmark (where the social protection system is relatively well-developed) to 93 percent in Chile.

Just over one-third of respondents are confident that their government would provide sufficient support if they faced financial difficulties, as the figure below shows. Instead, people say they’re more likely to count on family and friends for support.

Figure 1: Who would help you get through financial troubles? | OECD 2021

Are governments explaining entitlements clearly?

Government officials in some countries may be disappointed with these findings. Although policy responses to the pandemic were not flawless, most governments took bold steps to address socioeconomic risks and realities. It seems likely, however, that miscommunication about social policies, rather than the realities of the policies themselves, may explain some of the negative perceptions of government support.

For example, we asked people how easily they thought they could receive public benefits if they needed them. As the figure below shows, nearly half of respondents across countries say they don’t think they could receive benefits.

Figure 2: Do you think you could easily receive public benefits if you needed them? | OECD 2021

We then asked those respondents who doubted they could access benefits to explain what they saw as the barriers to access. The most commonly cited barrier (reported by 58 percent) is uncertainty about whether they would qualify for public benefits. And 55 percent worry that the application process would be difficult or time consuming.

More generally, people’s perceptions of public benefits are often disconnected from the facts. We find this to be true when looking at policies cross-nationally and when looking at specific countries. Take the examples of France and Belgium. During the pandemic, France offered a job-retention program to workers at risk of unemployment that paid about 70 percent of the average wage, while Belgium offered 50 percent of the average wage — and a larger share of French than Belgian workers took up these benefits in spring 2020.

Yet the French RTM respondents are substantially less confident than Belgians that they would get enough government support to see them through financial difficulties. This suggests that public fears may have less to do with benefits that are actually available than with public misperceptions. These are issues that can be addressed through clearer communication efforts and easier benefit processes.

People don’t think government is listening

We also found a widely held belief that government doesn’t listen to the people when designing or reforming social protections. As shown below, about half of all respondents report that their government does not incorporate their views, or the views of people like them, when designing and reforming benefits.

Figure 3: Does government consider the views of people like you when designing and reforming benefits? | OECD 2021

As governments continue to confront the pandemic and gradually move toward the recovery phase, policymakers are thinking carefully about how to target and deliver benefits. At the same time, if they want programs to succeed, governments may want to evaluate new ways to communicate how social programs and policies work, make social programs more transparent and easier to access, and ensure that people’s voices are heard in the design and reform of these important measures.

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Valerie Frey is a researcher in the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Follow her on Twitter @ValerieAFrey.