The phrases ‘building back better’, but also ‘building back smarter or stronger’ and ‘levelling up’ have been prominent in calls for recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. They evoke the sentence of President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.” The recovery from the Covid-19 crisis has been hailed as the opportunity to use the disruption that the health crisis brought about to channel investments towards more inclusive, resilient and environmentally friendly outcomes.

An increasingly diverse range of actors across the world have been using these phrases. But within them there are different views of what ‘better’ or ‘stronger’ actually mean and how it can be achieved. Across the pond, US House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill to expand the US social safety net and help Americans bounce back from the pandemic, including free preschool, initiatives to fight climate change and affordable housing programmes. In the UK, levelling up has been used to support poorer areas, but think tanks have highlighted that it should also apply to people, particularly those most affected by the pandemic like people with disabilities or ethnic minorities. In the EU, NextGenerationEU has been defined by the European Commission as the once in a lifetime chance to emerge stronger from the pandemic, transform European economies, create opportunities and jobs.

Building back better implies that recovery should be sustainable and resilient. The concept of resilience in social services has indeed been increasingly central to the European Social Network (ESN)’s work as we look at the ways in which social services are transforming how they work and support the populations they serve, and what needs to be done to ensure future crisis-proof and sustainable public social services. The pre-pandemic context was already concerning. The European Policy Centre’s report ‘Building Resilience in Public Social Services’ underlines the trend of a shrinking and greying EU which is resulting in a lower tax base as well as an increased demand for long-term care. However, the percentage of GDP invested in care and social services has decreased over the years. The Covid-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the critical reality that social services are battling a higher workload with fewer resources.

Covid-19 has tested our immune systems, but it has also tested our social welfare systems. The Covid-19 crisis has led to the creation of additional vulnerabilities, particularly amongst older people, those who rely on social services, and those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, resulting in financial precarity, and ultimately leading to social exclusion. The pandemic has shown that societies without effective social welfare systems are more susceptible to greater social fallout during crises. Therefore, there has been growing recognition of social welfare as a type of ‘social immune system’. This has boosted the debate about basic income, a new model of care, and the crucial role of social services in promoting social and community inclusion.

However, the pandemic has placed additional pressure on a social services sector, which was already under stress, and exposed the gaps and weaknesses of existing social welfare systems. While there were problems before, the pandemic has compounded these entrenched vulnerabilities. The lack of resources, such as funding and adequate infrastructure, had long resulted in major challenges for public social services authorities but the pandemic magnified them. Current and future continuity plans need to take account of the best way to meet pre-existing needs as well as additional support and ways to meet different populations requirements. These should be underwritten by adequate funding.

The European recovery and resilience funds under NextGenerationEU can be a transformational opportunity for social services. National authorities have the chance to cooperate with regional and local social services to employ these funds for the reform and modernisation of social services. This will ensure that social services fulfil their role both as a safety net that protects the most vulnerable and as an investment that safeguards us against the worse impact of any crisis. This is how we want to build back better, smarter and stronger by levelling up the people who need it the most.