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Extending Opportunities

How Active Social Policy Can Benefit Us All

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Social policy is often disparaged as being a burden on society, but this book shows that well-designed social protection can be an asset that is critical for sustaining social development.  To fulfill its potential, however, social protection now needs to recognise new needs of individuals and families, and new constraints on their functioning.  Successful programmes will require new means to attain their goals, to leverage the initiatives of a broad range of actors, and to involve clients at every stage in the design and delivery of programmes.

In examining these questions, this fact-filled report stresses the importance of shifting the focus of social programmes from insuring individuals against a few, well-defined contingencies towards investing in their capabilities and making use of them to the best of their potential at every stage of the life course.  It also underscores the importance of broadening the roles played by individuals, employers and trade unions, as well as profit and not-for-profit providers of social services.

The book opens with a comprehensive assessment of the situation in OECD countries, comparing levels of poverty, social isolation, and social spending and indicators such as fertility rates, divorce rates, and distribution of household types (single, single parents, couples without children, couples with children).  In Part II of the book, issues relating to families and children are explored, with interesting data provided on gender gaps in employment and earnings, time spent by men and women on child care, maternity and parental leave, and family poverty.  The third part of the book examines poverty among prime-aged persons and includes extensive information on social assistance and disability.  The final part of the book examines social issues faced by older people and includes interesting information on employment of older people, effective ages of retirement in different countries, training of older employees, pensions, and long-term care.

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The Social Policy Context

Significant improvements in social conditions have been achieved in recent years due to the combination of economic growth and effective social protection. Nevertheless, social distress remains only too common. The main way traditional social policy has addressed this is through publicly-provided benefits – to protect individuals against the risks of life and to ensure that economic and social development move in tandem. However, this traditional model is under increasing pressure today, because of concerns about its affordability and because of a widelyheld view that many clients are badly served by existing programmes. At the root of social distress are structural factors that are common to all OECD countries: the more unequal distribution of market income, shifts in disadvantage among stages in the individual’s life-course, rapid ageing of the population, more diverse family patterns and changing labour-market conditions. More and more countries are introducing active social policies to tackle the challenges posed by these trends. This move to a more active approach aims to encourage individuals to participate as fully as possible in economic and social life. It is based on recognition of the rights and responsibilities of individuals and organisations as part of the broader community where they live and function. These reforms typically combine efforts to give all children a better start in life, to help parents reconcile work and family responsibilities, to help individuals overcome barriers to work, to make work pay and to respond to the needs of people in the latter part of their life. While the specifics of active social policies vary according to the life-course of individuals and specific country circumstances, their common thrust is the need to go beyond insuring individuals against the risks of life, towards a greater focus on investing in peoples’ capabilities and enabling them to realise their full potential throughout their lives.

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