The Netherlands' Bid to Trim Its Welfare State

By Llana, Sara Miller | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Netherlands' Bid to Trim Its Welfare State


Llana, Sara Miller, The Christian Science Monitor


When Sonja van Wijk's father moved into a nursing home two years ago, she became a daily fixture there, serving coffee, cooking meals, washing plates, or simply chatting with the six other residents living in his wing.

But there is a difference now: As of last year, these tasks, always done from the heart, are now mandatory for the family members of each senior citizen who secures a spot here. If families refuse to volunteer, they are told that this center, called Wilgenhoven, is not the place for them.

In practice, the hours asked are minimal. Each family or network of friends is asked to volunteer four hours a month, and they provide nonmedical services such as meals. And Wilgenhoven's community is small, just some 28 people drawn from the tiny village of Stolwijk and its surroundings.

But the move, which Wilgenhoven's owner, strategic holding company Fundis, has made permanent in three of the group's facilities and now is planning to expand, still stoked controversy in principle - raising questions that went all the way to the Dutch parliament and eliciting telephone calls from around the globe, says Rik Remmerswaal, a nurse who works at the home.

It is an example of a larger overhaul taking place within one of Europe's most comprehensive welfare states, transitioning it into what King Willem-Alexander called a "participation society" - a place where, in the interests of both community and government belt- tightening, its members do more to help each other before turning to the state for aid.

How the Dutch experiment fares could reach well beyond domestic borders, shaping Europe - and its welfare systems - as the Continent struggles to recover from its debt crisis.

"It is probably the way we are going in the coming years in the whole of Western Europe," says Mathieu Segers, a European integration expert at Utrecht University in Utrecht, Netherlands. "There has to be some trimming down of social policies."

At its heart, the Dutch movement is a bid to set people up for a mind shift in what they expect from their government.

Europe's welfare problem"The classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a participation society," the Dutch king told the nation last fall. "Everyone who is able will be asked to take responsibility for their own lives and immediate surroundings."

Aging societies across the developed world have presented a worrisome problem to policy experts for decades. Europe has seen multiple efforts to reform its post-World War II welfare systems, which have grown - and in some cases bloated - in years since.

Sweden went through a major welfare overhaul in the 1990s, including a revamping of its pension system. In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed his still-unrealized "Big Society" plans, which include volunteer work in exchange for unemployment benefits. The Netherlands has been tweaking unemployment payments and health-care subsidies for the past decade. The retirement age there, as it is in many parts of Europe, is rising to 67 (from 65).

Europe's debt crisis, which caused banks and governments alike to collapse, brought the issue to the fore for the political class - and gave them the urgency, and stomach, to go through with unpopular spending cuts.

Indeed, the Dutch experiment comes as part of a package of cuts aimed at keeping the Dutch deficit within the European Union target of less than 3 percent of gross domestic product.

Critics of center-right Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte say that this is nothing more than budget slashing packaged in a tidy philosophy.

But many in the Netherlands see Wilgenhoven, located in central Netherlands just outside the town of Gouda, as, for better or worse, a window onto what a "participatory state" might someday look like.

Mr. Segers says that he believes the government has created a "label" more than a revolution, a way to dress up the reality of budget cuts. …

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