Social justice improving for the first time since 2008

Almost half of all young people in Greece are unemployed. [Linmtheu/Flickr]

Unemployment across the EU is falling as the labour market recovers, but not all citizens are benefiting. A new study has found that in-work poverty is on the rise and youth unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Overall unemployment in the EU fell from 10.4% to 9.6% between 2014 and 2015, according to the Social Justice Index, published on Monday (14 November).

The Social Justice Index, an annual study published by the think-tank Bertelsmann Stiftung, assesses the state of social justice in Europe based on six criteria: poverty, education, the labour market, health, intergenerational justice and social cohesion and non-discrimination.

But the reduction in people at risk of poverty over the same period was less marked, falling from 24.4% to 23.7%. And the changing structure of the labour market since the crisis has caused an increase in in-work poverty.

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More than a third of the population in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Latvia and Hungary are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, according to a new report. In half of the EU’s 28 member states, at least one in three children live in poverty.

Reforms in favour of labour market flexibility in many countries, notably the UK, have helped bring more people back to work (unemployment in the UK fell from 8.3% in 2012 to 5.2% in 2015), but the numbers of “working poor” have increased.

7.8% of EU citizens with jobs in 2015 could not survive on their earnings. This is up from 7.2% at the height of the crisis in 2013.

“A full-time job must secure not only one’s income, but also one’s livelihood,” said Aart De Geus, chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. “When a growing share of people can’t live from their work over a long period, it undermines the legitimacy of our economic and social order.”

Youth and Southern Europe

Young people and Southern Europeans are most likely to suffer from social exclusion as a result of unemployment or poverty, the study found.

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The European Union’s flagship Youth Guarantee programme has been criticised for yielding disappointing results. Yet, Brussels has been told to invest more money and time in the scheme in order to push down the bloc’s youth jobless rate.

From 22.2% in 2014, EU-wide youth unemployment fell to 20.4% in 2015. While this is a step in the right direction, it is still far above the 2008 pre-crisis level of 15.6%.

But the overall figures hide the extent of the problem in the countries worst affected by the crisis. The 2015 rate of young people (aged 20-24) who are not in employment, education or training was 22.2% in Spain and 31.1% in Italy. Meanwhile, youth unemployment rates in these countries were even higher, at 48.3% and 40.3% respectively.

Still struggling to relaunch its labour market after the crisis, Greece had the EU’s highest youth unemployment rate in 2015, at 49.8%. According to the study’s authors, “The bailout package measures aggravated existing social problems,” leaving Greece bottom of the overall social justice standings, ranking in the bottom five on all six criteria.


And the North-South divide is just as pronounced in the poverty statistics. At 14%, the Czech Republic had the lowest rate of poverty in 2015, followed by Sweden (16%) and Finland and the Netherlands (both at 16.8%).

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The EU countries with the highest risk of poverty were Greece (35.7%), Romania (37.3%) and Bulgaria (41.3%). Again, children and young people were the worst-affected.

De Geus warned that “diminishing prospects for many young people play into the hands of rising populist movements. We mustn’t risk a withdrawal of a disappointed and frustrated youth from society.”

Stopping the rot?

After years of steady decline since 2008, social justice in the EU reached a low-point between 2012 and 2014, and now appears to be improving again.

But the report’s optimism was tempered. “Even seven years after the global economic crisis first hit, participation opportunities in the vast majority of EU states – with a few exceptions – are still noticeably worse than before the crisis,” the authors wrote.

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