Austerity measures in debt-ridden European countries have led to much hardship across the continent. Now, under proposals forwarded by the government in the Netherlands, elderly, chronically ill and even disabled Dutch may be required to perform some kind of work in return for health care and social services.
Holland, drastically overhauling its social welfare system under a crushing weight of debt, may compel such vulnerable people to do “voluntary work” in their communities in exchange for benefits, as proposed by Health Minister Martin van Rijn.
"Loneliness could perhaps be overcome if the elderly helped preschool children with language impairments, improve their reading," read part of the draft legislation, according to the Volkskrant newspaper.
"Or a retired accountant in a wheelchair could help out at the local council’s debt advice service."
British Prime Minister David Cameron has already lauded the dramatic changes the Dutch have proposed for upending their welfare state and suggesting it as a model for the U.K.
The Daily Telegraph reported that up until now only unemployed people in the Netherlands had been pressured to do community service work in exchange for benefits. Now, the government could empower local councils to ask the elderly and others in an “intrusive manner” to do such work. Each municipality would be free to determine what kind of work they need to be done by the aforementioned groups.
Liane de Haan, the director of Algemene Nederlandse Bond voor Ouderen (ANBO), an organization that represents Dutch senior citizens, generally welcomes the proposal, suggesting the elderly want to work and feel useful.
"Elderly people, who receive care, are not necessarily sick and pathetic. The way some talk about needy seniors places them outside society," she said. "I think everyone wants to be useful, infirm or not."
Under the Dutch austerity budget, the amount of money that the government has earmarked to local councils for home care services for 750,000 people was slashed by about €2 billion ($2.7 billion ) to €11.2 billion ($15.2 billion).
A columnist named Carla Wijnmaalen wrote in Dagelijkse Standaard newspaper: “A test for a civilized country is how it treats the weakest among its population. And who is weaker than frail older people? ... Martin van Rijn and his Labour Party should be ashamed of this broken and vulgar austerity program.”
But Holland’s King Willem-Alexander announced last month that sweeping changes would be imposed on the government’s budget, hailing the end of the welfare state.
“The classic welfare state of the second half of the 20th century … brought forth arrangements that are unsustainable in their current form,” he said in a televised speech.
The king proposed that the country’s new social contract would involve greater personal responsibility for citizens and less dependency on the state.
"The shift to a 'participation society' is especially visible in social security and long-term care," the king said.
Spending cuts by the government have already been condemned by labor unions and economists, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government is losing popularity. Even with all the cuts in place (including thousands of layoffs in the military), Holland’s budget deficit is expected to climb to 3.3 percent of GDP in 2014, above the EU-mandated 3 percent.
Moreover, Holland’s GDP is expected to contract by 1 percent this year and grow by only 0.5 percent in 2014, Associated Press reported.
"The necessary reforms take time and demand perseverance," the king said. “[But they will] lay the basis for creating jobs and restoring confidence."
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.