Social assistance is the type of social policy that aims to protect individuals who are deeply in need of help and responds to market failures. As an indispensable part of social protection policies, social assistance has been preserved and defined as a social human right in many international and supranational conventions.
Social assistance policies are very important for individuals to survive on their feet, to overcome social exclusion, to achieve social inclusion and to keep vulnerable groups connected to society. Although social assistance is primarily concerned with combating poverty, it also aims to strengthen the social participation of fragile and isolated social segments of society. In this way, social assistance not only helps to meet the immediate needs of the most disadvantaged in the society, but it also acts as social glue. In this sense, social assistance benefits are like the very first water of life that is given to a sapling.
Social assistance budget expanded
The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey regards being a "social state" as an indispensable feature of the state, which imposes obligations on the state to reduce poverty and to create active social policies for a fair distribution among the population. In other words, social assistance is a constitutional obligation of the state in Turkey. Even so, extensive investments have not been made in Turkey in the area of social assistance for many years.
However, this has dramatically changed from 2002 onward. Turkey has achieved an important breakthrough in the field of social assistance and social services in the last 15 years as it has done in all areas of social policies. While the public budget allocated for social assistance and social services amounted to almost TL 1.4 billion ($367.5 million) in 2002, by being increased 38 times, this figure reached TL 45 billion by the budgetary year 2017. According to a report by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, the number of households benefiting from social assistance has reached historic levels: 3.2 million.
As a direct result of these immense allocations to social assistance and social services, while the rate of Turkish citizens living with an income below $1 per day and living with an income below $2.15 per day was 0.20 percent and 3.04 percent, respectively, in 2002, both almost declined to zero by the end of 2016. Likewise, the proportion of the population living on an income below $4.30 per day declined to 1.62 percent by 2016 from the immense proportion of 30.3 percent in 2002. In other words, extensive social assistance and social services helped the country to shrink the number of people who live in poverty.
The main problem is coordination
However, Turkey has not yet developed an effective public strategy in the area of social assistance delivery, despite the large budget allocated to reduce poverty and apply social policies. International reports show that the main problem of Turkey's social assistance system is the lack of coordination and sufficient administrative infrastructure. The fact that the social assistance system is not collected under a single roof causes several problems: Duplicated and unnecessary allocations, ineffective assistance management, wasted resources, complexity in policy implementations, lack of standards in service provisions and extensive bureaucracy.
In the present application, social assistance is being organized on a national basis in Turkey, which means that regional income differences and different deprivation situations are not considered in the distribution of social benefits. The lack of a determined poverty threshold and dependence threshold is another major problem. In the same direction, no impact analyses of benefits are being done either.
The fact that the social assistance system is not organized to protect beneficiaries from welfare dependence is also another major problem. In the current situation, welfare recipients lack the mechanisms to encourage them to return to job markets and return to being an independent individual.
To summarize, although Turkey has increased its resources for social assistance immensely in recent decades, it still lacks an efficient and effective system to administer social assistance and lacks a coherent poverty management strategy.
Combining distinct social assistance schemes
Turkey is on a long-lasting search for a model to overcome this problem. One of the most important and interesting examples of this search was the Integrated Social Assistance Project, which was proposed in the 2006-2010 Economic Action Plan. The project aimed to form the substructure of an institutional social assistance system by initially eliminating the lack of a healthy and working partner database and poverty database. The project aimed to collect all the social assistance given by the state under one single administrative structure.
In line with this strategic plan, the Ministry of Family and Social Policy and the Ministry of Development proposed similar policy models under the title of the Integrated Service Delivery Model, which proposes to unify service delivery.
Despite all these ambitious efforts and plans, little was achieved in this direction. It is difficult to say that all these searches have been successful for integrating social assistance schemes so far. Although important steps have been taken, including some innovative models of service provision (such as accessible websites, common databases, unified applications) the goal of combining social assistance under a single authority has not been achieved.
The need for social assistance reform
In Turkey, different social benefits are provided to citizens in distinct assistance schemes by public institutions, such as the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of National Education, the Ministry of Health, municipalities, local government agencies and NGOs. This shattered structure leads to repetitive allocations, increased bureaucracy and reduced quality of service provision. Likewise, even the precise data on social assistance that is being provided by municipalities, local agencies and NGOs cannot be reached at present.
When all these aspects are analyzed together, unifying social assistance systems under one single roof and ensuring efficiency and effectiveness in all steps of service provision is a fundamental need of Turkey's welfare model. The need to provide quality social benefits with an effective, efficient, transparent, accountable, equitable and performance-based model is presenting itself urgently in the Turkish welfare model. Additionally, a comprehensive analysis and audit mechanism that will calculate the effectiveness of the services provided to citizens and measure how these allocations are helping to reduce poverty is also an immediate need.
An alternative approach: Family Insurance
Recently, the latest policy proposal keeps being debated among policymakers and political circles close to the government is the Family Welfare Support Program or (its other name) Family Insurance. This model, which continues to be debated extensively, has two main objectives: First, it aims to create a single structure to implement social assistance and social services, thus establishing a systematic welfare system. Second, it aims to determine a minimum income level for any household in the country, and if the household earns less than this level, to top-up its income by means of social benefits. The aim here is to reduce poverty in a household-income approach.
The main purposes of the targeted Family Welfare Support Program are to establish a brand new organizational structure that will enable social assistance schemes to be presented under one single authority and open the way for the basic components of the Family Insurance Scheme that might be integrated into a social security system in the later stages. Thus, this proposal both offers rehabilitation of the current model and structural reform.
Let's underline that this policy proposal is still in its very early stages. As it requires comprehensive implementation simultaneously in several public institutions, the Family Welfare Support Program should be regarded as a medium-term policy target for the country rather than a practice to be realized from one day to another.
However, it is an inevitable necessity for Turkey to adopt the Family Insurance model one way or another. Family insurance constitutes one of the nine fundamental social insurance branches of the International Labor Organization (ILO)'s Convention on the Minimum Norms of Social Security No. 102 of 1952. In Turkey, only care insurance and family insurance are missing of the ILO's nine fundamental branches. If the country succeeds in establishing a sustainable family insurance model, one of the minimum social security requirements of the ILO will be fulfilled. It seems inevitable for Turkey to take a step in this direction to ensure that the welfare model it has developed in the last 15 years can mature and evolve into a sustainable model.