RSA: The non-take-up of the allowance, a much bigger problem than fraud

In the spring of 2022, candidate president Emmanuel Macron created the controversy by proposing to reform the rights and duties of active solidarity income (RSA) recipients. The Head of State, re-elected since, had wanted to establish an “obligation to work fifteen to twenty hours a week” in order to promote their professional integration.

For some, it is indecent to increase the guilt of the victims of the crisis. Threatened by poverty, they have to cope more than any other with the decline in their purchasing power and they must be supported by automatic and unconditional aid. For the others, access to employment must be a priority and it is important to reform the non-monetary component of the RSA, to strengthen support and also controls...

Emmanuel Macron proposes a reform of the RSA with “15 to 20 hours” of weekly activity (Public Sénat, March 17, 2022).

This debate unquestionably has an ideological, even political dimension. Yet it is an important topic, both from a research and public policy perspective.

Rising suspicion

As recalled at the beginning of the year the rapport of the Court of Auditors, the number of beneficiaries has risen irresistibly from year to year since the introduction of the RSA in 2009, as was already the case with the number of beneficiaries of the minimum integration income (RMI) which it replaced (see graph). The health crisis has added a bump to the time series, which is now in the process of being absorbed, but the trend is still there, parallel to that of the increase in the duration of unemployment. If this trend is not sustainable, it is mainly not on a budgetary level.

In 2020, the RSA constituted a base of income for 2,1 million households, i.e. more than 4 million people with spouses and dependent children, for an annual public expenditure of 15 billion euros by adding the premium of activity and support, i.e. less than three quarters of a point of GDP. Its average amount is around 7000 euros per year and per beneficiary household, which makes it one of the least costly public aids in relation to its social impact.

In parallel with the increase in the number of beneficiaries, public opinion has evolved with regard to social minima. Many converging indices confirm in particular the growing suspicion towards the recipients of social assistance.

A Crédoc investigation published in 2018 thus indicated that a large majority of French people subscribe to the idea that the Family Allowance Funds (Caf) do not sufficiently control the situations of recipients. They were more than 80% in 2018 to share this feeling, against 64% twenty years earlier.

According to one more recent survey by Unédic, a majority of French people believe that job seekers have difficulty finding work because they do not make concessions in their job search. In addition, for 55% of respondents, the unemployed do not work because they risk losing their unemployment benefit.

How do the French perceive unemployment and the unemployed? (unedictv, February 2022).

Finally, political scientists Vincent Dubois and Marion Lieutaud studied the occurrences of social fraud by exploiting a corpus of 1 parliamentary questions asked between 108 and 1986. From rare, even non-existent at the beginning of the period, they gradually increased until become a full-fledged topic of political debate. Their formulation reveals a progressive hardening of positions, more particularly with regard to the most deprived fractions of the social space, and a concomitant weakening of critical discourse with regard to such tendencies.

Fraud remains the exception

The contrast therefore appears very clear between this growing feeling and the results of the control actions carried out by the institutions in charge of monitoring the beneficiaries. The latter show that the frauds are concentrated on a very small minority of beneficiaries and that they are mainly due to certain organized networks. According to the Court of Auditors, the cumulative amount of undue aid represents 3,2% of social benefits. Cases exist and they are widely relayed by the media, but they are always the exception. While it is important to fight against these offences, the role of public authorities is not to maintain the climate of suspicion that prevails against the vast majority of beneficiaries who respect the rules.

In complete contrast, social science research on the RSA shows on the contrary that the dominant fact is that of the permanence and generality of a massive non-use of social benefits intended to support low-income households. Thus, a significant proportion of households entitled to social assistance do not actually benefit from it. This is mainly due to a lack of demand on their part.

The reasons are multiple but involve difficulties in carrying out the administrative procedures and the stigma associated with requesting aid: in 2018, a third of eligible households RSA are thus in a situation of non-recourse each quarter; 1 in 5 households is in a situation of permanent non-recourse all year round. Non-take-up also affects the most vulnerable populations of the target public, such as homeless people.

Controls with unexpected effects

The growing suspicion towards benefit recipients has however led to an intensification of their monitoring and to the supervision of their professional and social integration procedures. In return for their rights, recipients have duties which materialize through various stages, such as the signing of an employment contract or a personalized project, then participation in integration initiatives (social or professional). However, participation in these approaches itself remains low for reasons that are partly due to the difficulties encountered by the departments in organizing support in a satisfactory manner.

To increase participation, some departments have changed their social action policy. A controlled experiment has thus been implemented in Seine-et-Marne. This consisted of varying the content of letters inviting recipients to register for support. The simplification of the letters and the addition of incentive elements did not, however, make it possible to substantially increase participation in the integration process.

Another department has opted for a more coercive action consisting of monitoring the situation of all recipients and sending a warning message, followed by a sanction in the form of a reduction in the allowance if the situation does not not change. These warning letters greatly increased participation in the first stages of the insertion path. But these notifications also increased RSA outflows.

The study does not make it possible to identify whether the exits go towards employment or whether they correspond to a cessation of the receipt of the allowance by individuals who are still eligible. However, it seems likely that these controls discourage recipients and increase their non-take-up. A greater intensity of control increases the costs borne by recipients to access the benefit, which may lead them to give up the benefit and their integration process, ie the exact opposite of the objective pursued.

The Covid-19 epidemic was a powerful reminder of the resilience of the French social protection model, capable of coping with a very large-scale economic and social crisis. The health crisis has shown that the risks of losing one's job and falling into poverty concern the entire population and that it is necessary to have a collective insurance and assistance mechanism. In the current debate, it is not only the monetary aspect that needs to be reformed, but rather the way in which support is deployed and the means allocated to it in order to better reduce social vulnerabilities.

Yannick L'Horty, Economist, university professor, Gustave Eiffel University; Remi Le Gall, Researcher (post-doctorate), Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC) et Sylvain Chareyron, Lecturer in Economics, Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / GERARD BOTTINO

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