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A Benefit Recipiency Approach to Analysing Differences and Similarities in European Welfare Provision

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In comparative welfare state research, the question of how to measure and understand cross-country differences and similarities in extents of public welfare provision has led to a major discussion about the indicators that could be used for this purpose. Much scholarly attention approaching this so-called ‘dependent variable problem’ concentrates on social expenditure or on social rights data as indicators of ‘welfare stateness’ or ‘welfare generosity’. However, recently, micro-level data on benefit receipt as another promising but hitherto underused indicator was brought into this discussion. The article at hand extends existing knowledge about the conceptual, methodological and empirical potentials and challenges of this alternative indicator compared to the two prevailing indicators. For the empirical analysis, it uses cash benefit recipiency data from the EU-SILC to investigate differences and similarities in extents of public welfare provision between 29 European countries for the period 2003–2012. The study reveals parallels to findings from research in which indicators of social expenditure and social rights are applied, but it also adds new insights beyond their cost and paper reality. This is mainly the case where priority is given to household-related assistance benefits rather than individual insurance benefits. The main conclusion of the paper is that the benefit recipiency indicator—despite not being flawless and requiring further research—complements existing knowledge on differences and similarities in welfare provision by European welfare states.

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  1. 1.

    See van Oorschot (2013) for a detailed overview of the advantages and short-comings in the use of administrative record data and survey data.

  2. 2.

    Austria (AT), Belgium (BE), Cyprus (CY), Czech Republic (CZ), Denmark (DK), Estonia (EE), Finland (FI), France (FR), Germany (DE), Greece (GR), Hungary (HU), Ireland (IE), Iceland (IS), Italy (IT), Latvia (LV), Lithuania (LT), Luxemburg (LU), Malta (MT), the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO), Poland (PL), Portugal (PT), Romania (RO), Slovenia (SI), Slovakia (SK), Spain (ES), Sweden (SE), Switzerland (CH), and the United Kingdom (UK).

  3. 3.

    Except for the UK, for which the income reference period is the survey year itself.

  4. 4.

    Due to limitations in space, only the following critical points are mentioned: Data source: Despite being a survey-based dataset, some countries report income data from national registers to EU-SILC. Originally, this was limited to DK, FI, IS, NL, NO, SE, SI. Yet, due to an increasing inclusion of countries in the dataset that only provide income data from administrative records as well as due to countries that suddenly changed their data collection method, income data from surveys is losing ground. This can create some bias with regard to the comparability of the data across countries as well as within countries. Data collection: In some countries survey participants are interviewed individually, while in other countries one person delivers information for all household members. Also, some countries conduct face-to-face interviews to collect the data, while others use telephone interviews, computer-assisted web interviews or data provided by households in a self-administered way. Samplings design: Some countries sample dwellings or addresses, other households, or individuals. Fieldwork periods: Most countries carry the fieldwork out in the first half of the calendar year. Yet, Ireland and the United Kingdom conduct surveys throughout the year, and some countries concentrate their fieldwork in the second half of the calendar year.

    Reference period: As a rule, income data refers to the 12-month calendar year prior to the interview year. However, exceptions from this rule are the UK and Ireland. British income data refer to the year of the survey, while Irish income data refer to income in the 12 months prior to the interview. Standardised versus output harmonised surveys: In contrast to the previously existing ECHP survey, EU-SILC is output harmonised. Thus, countries deliver data to Eurostat according to common guidelines and procedures for data collection, concepts, classifications and target variables. However, apart from this countries decide how the data are collected and reported.

  5. 5.

    ‘Needs-balancing’ may be problematic, and is an issue for measuring differences in welfare provision on the basis of social expenditure data as much as on the basis of recipiency data. The various proxy variables used in current literature often come along with pitfalls, when studying benefits at an aggregated, rather than on a programmatic level. To make findings most comparable to existing research using benefit recipiency information, this study follows the suggestion made by van Oorschot and Reinstadler (2013) and employs inactivity rates as a proxy for social need. It can be considered a compromise indicator to get grip of the potential beneficiaries influencing receipt of OA, DIS, SV, and to a certain extent UE benefits.

  6. 6.

    Just like with the personal benefits, this indicator can only be a proxy. Since housing benefits, social assistance, and in some countries also child-allowances are means-tested benefits, using the share of the relatively very poor people before social transfers is assumed to capture a good share of the need-population.


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This study is based on data from Eurostat, EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions 2004–2013. The responsibility for all conclusions drawn from the data lies entirely with the author.

Funding was provided by KU Leuven (OT/13/029).

Author information

Correspondence to Adeline Otto.



See Table 4.

Table 4 Proxy variables used for the need-adjustment of the respective benefit access rates.

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Otto, A. A Benefit Recipiency Approach to Analysing Differences and Similarities in European Welfare Provision. Soc Indic Res 137, 765–788 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-017-1621-5

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  • Dependent variable problem
  • Welfare state comparison
  • Welfare state indicators
  • Benefit recipiency data