People relying on social assistance are increasingly turning to aid programmes run by local NGOs to try and make ends meet, in part because income support payments from the state-owned benefits administrator Kela have been late.
Basic social assistance is a form of income support in Finland provided to families and individuals whose assets and income do not cover essential daily expenses.
According to Deaconess worker Katja Lahti of the Hämeenlinna-Vanaja parish, people of all ages have been lining up for assistance. Local parishes run diaconal or social work programmes under the aegis of Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"We have had new [faces] as well as old customers who had been managing well for as long as 10 years. Young people in their twenties have also come for help," Lahti said.
Payment delays in many cities
The phenomenon is evident in other cities as well. Parishes in Helsinki, Turku and Oulu have been telling the same story: Ever since Kela took over responsibility for approving and paying out income support, people in need of the extra help have been flocking to charitable organisations.
According to charity worker Lahti, what is most worrying is that people sometimes cannot afford to pay for their medication.
"It’s already a question of life and death. I don’t dare withhold help," she added.
On 1 January 2017 Kela assumed responsibility for processing social assistance applications and paying out supplemental support, taking over from the individual municipalities. Since then, there have been ongoing reports of delays as Kela has struggled to deal with the applications in a timely manner. In June, the Southern Finland Regional Administrative Authority raised concerns about the situation in Hämeenlinna.
While the Deaconess charity does what it can, it pointed out that the church’s coffers are not bottomless. Lahti said that aid workers are constantly mindful of their budget.
Kela: 18 months is a short time
Kela has received sharp criticism for the payment backlog, which has been continuing now for 18 months. Some say that Kela staff do not possess the sensitivity required of a social benefits provider, preferring to deal with computer terminals and paperwork instead of individuals.
Kela central district benefits boss Kirsi Metsävainio said that the organisation has only recently been given the responsibility for distributing basic social assistance.
"I understand that it may seem like a long time to our customers, but we are a large organisation. We are learning the whole time and operations are becoming smoother," she said.
The system currently requires people to apply to Kela for the basic component of social assistance and then turn to municipalities or cities for preventive or supplementary income support. Kela said that it is focusing on cooperation in this area.
Officials in Hämeenlinna, southern Finland have established a tri-partite working group involving representatives from Kela, the municipality and local Deaconess branch. Members will meet for the first time at the end of August. According to Metsävainio, Tampere is trialling a similar approach.
She stressed that Hämeenlinna is part of Kela's central insurance district, where social assistance decisions are being made in the statutory time of seven working days.