The coronavirus crisis visibly worsened financial problems of residents in Finland, such as indebtedness and the need for food aid, according to the findings of a new social survey.
The "Social barometer 2020" found that 73 percent of social workers said they saw an increased need for food aid during the crisis, while 40 percent said that financial problems such as rent defaults became more widespread during the state of emergency.
"The results are consistent with the experiences of third sector operatives, according to whom the amount of food aid has doubled during the coronavirus epidemic," Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare special researcher Merita Jokela said.
"Although a majority of the population was affected by furloughs and a deterioration of their financial situation, the restrictions during the state of emergency disproportionately hit households that already had income problems. Many families with children in particular have had to pinch pennies because, with kids at home, their food costs have increased. This in turn is evident in the growing need for food aid," Jokela added.
Differences over Kela's performance
Social workers and the management of benefits agency Kela were divided on the question of how well Kela has responded to the service needs of customers reliant on basic income during the epidemic. Up to 92 percent of Kela leaders said the agency had done well or quite well in discharging their duties, while less than half of social workers (43%) agreed with the assessment.
Moreover, 27 percent of social workers said that Kela had performed its duties poorly or quite poorly. In the Uusimaa region and other large municipalities with more than 200,000 residents in particular, social workers tended to be more critical of Kela than in other areas.
The difference hints at a serious problem relating to cooperation between social workers and the agency, which may jeopardise people in vulnerable situations as well as their income and prospects for a dignified life, according to THL research professor Heikki Hiilamo.
"The results suggest that social workers are primarily in contact with people who apply for preventive and supplementary income support and who have serious financial and other problems," he added.
Online services left gaps
According to social workers, their customers experienced difficulties because Kela offices were either closed due to the epidemic, or could only be visited by appointment. They were not always aware how to reach Kela customer service representatives to conduct business related to income support.
"The results highlighted [the fact] that in a crisis situation relying more on online services has made it increasingly difficult for people in vulnerable positions to do business," said Anna Järvinen, a specialist with the umbrella social and health care organisation SOSTE.
The survey concluded that problems with Kela’s services mostly affected customer groups that did not use online services. These groups included the elderly, foreign language speakers and others with no internet access at home.
The survey gathered 776 responses from social and health directors and social workers in municipalities and joint municipal bodies, directors of local employment officers and Kela benefits and customer service managers. Questions relating to income support problems were answered by Kela managers and social workers.