The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on public social services seeking innovative tools to meet a growing demand for social support. Are social vouchers part of the solution? On 30 October the European Social Network (ESN) invited social policy experts, social services directors and social voucher providers to discuss how vouchers can help to address the needs of people facing material deprivation.

The post-based voucher system helping clients of a closed foodbank in Germany

Markus Kerckhoff, Chairman of the Tafel in Bergisch Gladbach, told attendees how, in collaboration with the voucher issuer Edenred, he was able to set up a local vouchers support system using the post. “Our foodbank had to close due to Covid-19 restriction measures, leaving hundreds of people without access to basic food support,” he explained. “Fortunately, Edenred helped us to quickly set up a voucher-based solution.”

The online application system for electronic food vouchers in Italy

The first Covid-19 wave hit Italy severely, forcing the country in lockdown and leaving many people without jobs and income. In the absence of entitlement to public unemployment benefits, many people turned to municipal social services in seek for immediate help.

The City of Genova decided to rely on the existing food voucher system, originally created to provide benefits for company employees, to provide support. In partnership with Edenred, the city set up an online system for citizens to apply for food vouchers from their homes. Applications by post were possible for those without access to the Internet. The police also got involved, delivering vouchers to applicants in quarantine. “Thanks to the voucher system, we were able support more than 90,000 families in dire situations,” reported Dr Daniela Giancarli from the Social Policy Directorate of Genova.

In Brescia, a similar system was set up, this time relying on a smart phone app that allowed applicants to receive and use their food vouchers electronically. Massimo Molgora, responsible for social policies in the City of Brescia, was happy with the result: “More than 5,000 requests were successfully processed,” he reported. “It is a system that has proven its efficiency. It works very well.”

Social vouchers – a useful and usable tool for social services?

In times of growing social needs, public social services more than ever must be able to provide targeted support. For Amal Chevreau, Policy Analyst in the Social Economy and Innovation Unit at the OECD, vouchers are a useful tool. “Vouchers were crucial to deliver food, basic necessities and social services during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he explained.

This was echoed by Emmanuele Massagli, President of the Italian Association of Employee Welfare, who reported how delivering support through the existing food voucher system was the Italian municipalities’ preferred choice compared with other possibilities, such as in kind provision of food, self-designed vouchers or monetary support.

Trees De Bruycker, Coordinator in the Directorate of Poverty in the city of Gent in Belgium wondered if restricting aid recipients’ consumption to food may impede individuals’ ability to make their own choices. Sue Wald, Corporate Director Adult Social Care, Swindon Borough Council, UK, commented that while vouchers should not replace general welfare benefits, they could be particularly useful in emergency situations requiring immediate access to food.

Conclusion

Alfonso Lara Montero, CEO of ESN struck a positive balance: “Social services may not only use vouchers as a powerful tool to help people in need, they can also serve as a tool to support staff and volunteers who have been working hard this year to meet the dual challenge of an economic and health crisis.”