Coronavirus highlights stark contrast between U.S., Europe social security nets

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: U.S. job losses could be permanent for some' COVID-19: U.S. job losses could be permanent for some
COVID-19: U.S. job losses could be permanent for some – May 9, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is straining social safety nets across the globe — and underlining sharp differences in approach between wealthy societies such as the United States and Europe.

In Europe, the collapse in business activity is triggering wage support programs that are keeping millions on the job, for now. In contrast, in the United States more than 33.5 million people have applied for jobless benefits and the unemployment rate has soared to 14.7 per cent. Congress has passed US$2 trillion in emergency support, boosting jobless benefits and writing stimulus checks of up to US$1,200 per taxpayer.

That is a pattern seen in earlier economic downturns, particularly the global financial crisis and the Great Recession. Europe depends on existing programs kicking in that pump money into people’s pockets. The U.S., on the other hand, relies on Congress taking action by passing emergency stimulus programs, as it did in 2009 under President Barack Obama, and the recent rescue package under U.S. President Donald Trump.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'The pandemic-induced recession is hurting women' The pandemic-induced recession is hurting women
The pandemic-induced recession is hurting women – May 9, 2020

Economist Andre Sapir, a senior fellow at the Bruegel research institute in Brussels, said budget policy in the U.S. plays partly the role that Europe’s welfare system plays because the American welfare system is less generous and a recession can be much harsher on workers.

In downturns, U.S. employees can lose their health insurance if they lose their job and there’s also a greater risk of losing one’s home through foreclosure. On the other hand, Europeans typically pay higher taxes, meaning they earn less in the good times.

“In the U.S. you need to keep pumping money into the economy so that people continue to be employed, because it is through being employed that they are protected,” said Sapir. “Which is the better system? I’m not going into that discussion because that is really a huge issue.”

READ MORE: Trump’s $4.8 trillion budget would slash spending on social safety nets and foreign aid

Story continues below advertisement

The U.S. tends to rank below average on measures of social support among the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, whose members are mostly developed democracies. The U.S. came last in people living in relative poverty, meaning living on half the median income or less, with 17.8 per cent. Countries like Iceland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Finland have less than 6 per cent.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

Here’s a look at how the social safety nets of the U.S. and Europe compare:


Americans on unemployment were collecting an average of about US$372 weekly before the coronavirus struck. But that average could range from US$215 in Mississippi to US$543 in Hawaii. The rescue package gave jobless workers an additional US$600 a week through July. It also extended benefits to those who lost work as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, which could include parents who needed to leave their jobs because schools were closed. Most states offer six months of unemployment but the emergency legislation adds 13 weeks.

Click to play video: 'U.S. unemployment hits 14.7 with more than 20 million jobs lost' U.S. unemployment hits 14.7 with more than 20 million jobs lost
U.S. unemployment hits 14.7 with more than 20 million jobs lost – May 8, 2020

By comparison, Germany’s jobless benefit pays 60 per cent of previous salary for a year. France provides up to 75 per cent of the previous average daily wage for up to two years. Unemployment benefits in France are on average 1,200 euros ($1,320) per month.

Story continues below advertisement

And there’s Europe’s short-hours programs, which pay most of worker salaries if companies put them on shorter hours through a temporary disruption. More than 10 million workers are being paid that way in Germany and about 12 million in France, helping hold eurozone unemployment to only a 0.1 percentage point increase in March over February, to 7.4 per cent.

The U.S. emergency package included money for cheap loans to businesses that can be forgiven if the money is used mostly for payroll.


Nearly half of Americans receive health insurance through their employers, while another 34 per cent get benefits through the government programs Medicare and Medicaid. Separately, 6 per cent are insured individually and 9 per cent in 2018 had no insurance at all.

READ MORE: Coronavirus pandemic raises question: Is it time for a basic income?

In Europe, universal health coverage is the rule, generally funded by payroll or other taxes. One example is Britain’s National Health Service, which is funded by taxes and offers free care that costs the government 7 per cent of GDP per year.


U.S. workers are entitled to unpaid family leave, but no federal law requires private employers to provide paid family leave. In the private sector, 16 per cent of workers had access to paid family leave as of March 2018. Some states offer paid family leave insurance for 4 to 10 weeks. The United States is the only country in the OECD to not offer paid leave to new mothers.

Story continues below advertisement

In France, by contrast, mothers are entitled to at least 16 weeks of leave for their first child and must take at least 8 weeks. From the third child onward, they are allowed 26 weeks. Workers get a daily maternity leave allowance of up to 89 euros (US$94.50). But some professions have their own more favourable deals, up to the complete payment of salaries.

Denmark gives 52 weeks of parental leave after a birth or adoption, to be shared by the parents; whether at full salary or not depends on workplace agreements.

Click to play video: 'Nearly 2 million Canadians lost their jobs in April' Nearly 2 million Canadians lost their jobs in April
Nearly 2 million Canadians lost their jobs in April – May 8, 2020


Roughly 8.3 million Americans collect disability benefits earned through Social Security contributions. The payments average US$15,100 annually _ just above the poverty level for a one-person household of US$12,760. Standards are strict and most applications are denied; people who don’t qualify may wind up on food stamps, a basic subsistence program. The U.S. ranks 30th among 36 OECD countries in spending on all forms of disability related to work or illness.

Story continues below advertisement

In France, the totally disabled are eligible for public health insurance payments of at least 292.80 euros (US$311) a month and no more than 1,714 euros (US$1,825). Those who are totally unable to work and also depend on help for daily tasks are eligible for 1,418 to 2,839 euros (US$1,510 to US$3,027) a month. The payments can be combined with other forms of income and be subjected to tax and social security contributions.


Europe’s more generous social safety nets come at a cost, largely paid through taxes levied on workers and employers.

In the United States, Social Security contributions amounted to 6 per cent of GDP in 2018, according to the OECD. In France it was almost three times higher, at 16 per cent of annual GDP, while in Germany it was just over 14 per cent.


Sylvie Corbet and John Leicester in Paris, Josh Boak in Washington and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

Sponsored content