With millions of people worldwide thrust into poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, public authorities have needed to act fast to implement solutions that quickly target regions or groups of people among the worst-hit. Benefiting from their efficiency, adaptability and ability to ensure choice and dignity of the end-user, several public authorities have turned to social voucher programmes to deliver rapid and effective support to people in need during the pandemic.
Over the past 50 years, social vouchers have been pivotal in helping governments, municipal authorities, and the third sector responds to targeted populations’ specific need. This has been particularly important as more people turn to public authorities for welfare support. For governments and other public authorities worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many new and unexpected challenges and exacerbates a number of existing social issues. Between April and June 2020, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that around 400 million full-time equivalent jobs were lost across the world, and income earned by workers globally fell around 10 per cent in the first nine months of 2020. This submerged millions of people worldwide into deeper poverty, sparking governments worldwide to respond with greater social protection for their citizens.
As the pandemic made distributing in-kind benefits challenging, with some lockdown measures prohibiting food banks from distributing support and social distancing restricting face-to-face contact, social vouchers provided an effective solution. They have enabled assistance for food and staple goods to be made available to those most in need without requiring direct, in-person contact. In particular, in Europe, social vouchers have been a solution to governments’ pressing concern – keeping their most vulnerable citizens fed and with access to staple goods.
The European Institutions support this approach while amending in April 2020 the distribution modalities of the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) to introduce the possibility to deliver food and basic material assistance through vouchers.
In several EU countries, social vouchers have played a critically important role in deploying aid and supporting those most in need over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Principally, governments, distributing authorities, local vendors and recipients have benefited from improved access to solutions that target support to specific demographics and which can be made available and implemented quickly. In France, digital platforms made it possible to roll out solutions for Action Logement in less than six months. In the United Kingdom, social vouchers under the form of scannable QR codes were distributed in just a few days to replace lunches for disadvantaged schoolchildren. Similarly, in Italy, childcare social vouchers financed by local, provincial governments were quickly introduced for people working at home and for people and caregivers providing essential services to keep the country functioning during the lockdown.
While the different social voucher programmes demonstrably achieved their main aim of providing immediate person-centred support to recipients throughout the pandemic, the wider, long-term benefits they can provide cannot be overlooked. The targeted nature of social vouchers extends beyond providing specific goods and services to beneficiaries; they can also provide an economic boost to several economic sectors. The pandemic also highlighted the benefits of a digitalised – and therefore sanitary – social voucher system and accelerated its uptake. The scale and speed of programme rollouts were made possible due to the adaptability of social vouchers to digital forms. Digital vouchers allow governments, charities and organisations to react quickly to urgent needs as they arise. They also help to reinforce the financial education of at-risk population groups. There is no doubt digital social vouchers will continue to evolve, opening up a wealth of possibilities for their future use.
As we look beyond the pandemic and the period of recovery that is still to come, the ongoing need for support systems to be scaled and adapted to suit those in need will be crucial. The success of the social voucher solution was borne out of necessity in a crisis, but this kind of targeted support can continue in the long run. There still remains significant scope for social voucher solutions to be rolled out to help address the complex needs of millions of European citizens.