Slipping through the safety net

People standing in line on a sidewalk in a Norwegian city. Many carry empty shopping bags.

European countries, including Norway, have some of the most comprehensive welfare states you will find anywhere in the world.

So it may come as a surprise to see people begging and sleeping rough in these affluent countries.

OsloMet professor Rune Halvorsen studies the factors that influence poverty in Norway and the European Union (EU) as part of the EUROSHIP project.

The EUROSHIP project examines how policy decisions allow people to fall through cracks and end up in poverty.

Despite extensive policies to fight poverty, millions of people across Europe still struggle to make ends meet.

In response, the EUROSHIP researchers have developed statistical indicators to monitor and help governments improve those policies.

As Halvorsen describes it, "EUROSHIP is an ambitious project to collect data on how people cope with poverty and try to overcome financial hardship."

Who is in poverty?

When Halvorsen talks about poverty, he is usually referring to 'relative poverty', which the EU defines as people making less than 60 percent of the median income in their country of residence.

This includes a wide range of people, from those who cannot afford food or housing to people whose financial hardship prevents them from living a decent life, participating as full citizens, or sending their children to social activities.

People facing relative poverty come from all different ages and backgrounds. Halvorsen and his team study three different age cohorts:

Each of these groups has their own specific needs and challenges. Finding the similarities across their life situations is one of the keys to developing solutions to poverty.

Understanding the people behind the statistics

Halvorsen and his team have interviewed a diverse range of people facing poverty to understand the leading causes. They found that education, nationality, and health are all major factors.

Some of the largest groups of people in poverty include:  

In addition, the income disparities between regions in Europe mean poverty looks different across the continent.

Taken together, these factors create what Halvorsen calls a "complicated image of poverty."

He says that while there are some generalizable solutions to poverty, one single solution will not work in every region.

Instead, the OsloMet researcher emphasizes "the need for policy measures that are sensitive to the needs and interests of this diverse population."

Portrait of Rune Halvorsen.

Poverty in an affluent country: a closer look at Norway

Halvorsen explains that Norway has comparatively low levels of poverty, but that there is concern about growing inequalities in the country.

"In the 1970s, Norwegian prime minister Odvar Nordli said, 'we do not have poverty in Norway anymore'. Since the 2000s, however, politicians increasingly criticize each other for not doing enough to fight poverty."

The goal of Norway’s social support policies is for every citizen to have their basic needs met. Yet there is disagreement about how that support should be distributed.

Should the government provide universal benefits in cash and in the form of programmes that all citizens benefit from, or should support be targeted through means-testing that tries to help those most in need?

There is no broad agreement between Norway’s different political parties about which is the right approach.

Poverty in an affluent country also comes with social stigma and personal feelings of failure that complicate policy.

In the 1970s, Norwegian prime minister Odvar Nordli said, 'we do not have poverty in Norway anymore' – Rune Halvorsen

In his interviews with people in poverty in Norway, Halvorsen says many people expressed that they avoid means-tested social assistance benefits because they feel stigmatized and do not want to expose all their personal details to a government agency.

"It is a bit of a paradox," the researcher explains. 

"People are entitled to government services, but they go to charities because nobody asks questions there, so they feel the barriers to use non-governmental services, like foodbanks or charities, are lower."

Slipping through the cracks

Regardless of the reasons people do not receive support, Halvorsen says the Norwegian state is falling short of helping people most in need.

Nearly half of the people seeking social assistance benefits today are migrants who are not entitled to the full range of benefits, and many are young people who cannot collect unemployment pay or other social insurance benefits.

Often the people in poverty are eligible to receive benefits but cannot access them for health or cultural reasons.

"Many of the people you see sleeping rough or begging in the streets are migrants. There are also people facing complex problems like addiction or psychiatric diseases."

The number of unhoused people in Norway has declined in recent years, but the number of people seeking social assistance has been growing during the recent cost of living crisis.

In addition, more people in full-time employment are receiving social assistance. These data points are a reminder to Halvorsen that the existing social services are insufficient to protect all people.

Norway and other European countries have tried to improve access to their social services by digitalizing them.

The expectation is that doing so will be more cost-effective and accessible, reducing the social stigma and allowing caseworkers to focus on more complicated cases.

In practice, unfamiliarity with technology and difficulty navigating the forms often mean that people cannot get the benefits they are entitled to.

Halvorsen says this problem affects different age groups.

People think digital exclusion applies only to the elderly or disabled, but in practice it can affect anybody. Even younger people tend to struggle with filling out the required forms. – Rune Halvorsen

To make matters worse, many people in need live in rural areas across Norway and Europe that may not even have reliable internet, making it impossible for even tech-savvy people to access and submit their benefit forms.

Identifying the gaps

Halvorsen and his colleagues in the EUROSHIP project are working to formulate evidence-based policy solutions to address poverty.

Through their research, Halvorsen and his team recognize that even in affluent societies like Norway, there are individuals who fall through the cracks of the social safety net due to a range of complex factors.

To develop proposals for better social protection policies, EUROSHIP researchers initiated a dialogue with stakeholder organisations – civil society organisations, social partners, and government representatives – across seven European countries, including Norway.

To further heighten the impact of their research, they also dive into statistics collected by Eurostat and work with local experts in each country.

"Cross-national comparisons depend on having local experts who know the national history and language to ensure we have a achieved a sufficient in-depth understanding of each of these national contexts," Halvorsen says.

By understanding the differences and similarities between social protection programmes in different countries – their historical developments and the logic behind them – EUROSHIP researchers gain a holistic picture of the situation and develop recommendations.

Patching the cracks

Many of the policy solutions EUROSHIP has found focus on improving the social protection floor in Europe, especially for those outside the labor market.

Halvorsen says the European Union recommendation on "adequate minimum income ensuring active inclusion" adopted in 2023 is a good start (

The EU, Halvorsen explains, is encouraging states to develop minimum thresholds for income benefits.

However, the recommendation is non-binding, leaving the flexibility and design of minimum incomes schemes to member states.

These efforts have been enough to bring about the drastic change needed to reduce poverty in Europe.

Halvorsen says the way to prevent people from falling behind is to create policies that prioritize focusing on people and active outreach measures and social participation for those who cannot work.

As Halvorsen and EUROSHIP continue to research structural changes and policies that fight poverty, a few solutions stand out.

"First and foremost," Halvorsen says, "national governments and the EU need to overcome the stereotypical image of poor people and the idea that people are trying to avoid paid work."

Beyond that, Halvorsen recommends that countries use their structural funds to share resources between states to develop underserved regions.

Europe has the resources to eliminate poverty, Halvorsen maintains. He and his colleagues hope that their ongoing research can offer pathways for achieving this goal.

The EUROSHIP project


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Published: 16/02/2024
Last updated: 23/02/2024
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Rolf Øhman / Aftenposten, Pål Arne Kvalnes / OsloMet