Outlining the perceptions of social assistance programs in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan

(Data analysis is based on “Caucasus Barometer 2013”)

By Arpy Manusyan,
CRRC-Armenia Junior Fellow

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, followed by a severe social and economy crisis, various social assistance programs were introduced to address the rapidly growing poverty. Social assistance was meant to protect the vulnerable groups unable to integrate into the society and country’s economic system due to some problems (Falkingham J, Vlachantoni A., 2010Maltseva E., 2012). It became evident that social assistance should not only solve short-term problems, reduce poverty threshold, but also act as groundwork for social state. It should be targeted and flexible in responding to various needs of the vulnerable groups. 

Social assistance has many definitions that may vary depending on the scope and purpose of the study. Generally it can be defined as the range of policies and benefits aimed to guarantee the social and economic rights of people based on need and resources (Lunt N., Coyle D.,1996). There are three major approaches toward social assistance: need-based, merit-based, and need and merit-based social assistance . According to the school of need-based social assistance, response to needs is unconditional and is regarded as a social imperative. Merit-based social assistance promotes the idea that assisting the poor on the basis of need may make them dependent and deepen their poverty. The school of need and merit-based social assistance tries to address the weaknesses of one school by the strengths of the other school of thought (Hiruy M., 2009).

Still the need-based social assistance is the dominant model especially in post-Soviet countries. Aimed at supporting the minimum material needs of vulnerable groups, it is not able to respond flexibly to changing situations. Introduced as urgent measures, some of these policies have managed to reduce the poverty, while some other programs have generated and sustained the syndrome of dependency (The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-2009Hanlon, J etal., 2010European Commission’s report on Social Protection and Social Inclusion in Ukraine, 2009). 

Here I would like to comparatively explore the perceptions of social assistance programs in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia based on two interrelated questions that indicate public attitudes towards TSA programs aimed at poor societal layers (“Missing” command is applied to the questions in order to get answers that show levels of agreement):
  1. Do you agree that social assistance should be covering fewer poor families than it does today, and the savings should be used on other public services or lowering taxes? / Do you agree that social assistance should be covering more poor families than it does today, even if this results in having fewer public services or higher taxes.
  2. To what extent do you agree or disagree to extend the number of poor families included in Targeted Social Assistance Program in exchange of requiring some of these actions from recipients? 

Chart 1. Attitude towards number of families covered, CB 2013

According to CB 2013, there is a noticeable difference in answers to this question between respondents from Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as between respondents from Armenia and Georgia (Chart 1).  While 50% of Azerbaijani respondents think that social assistance should cover more poor families, only 28% of Armenian respondents agree with this statement. The difference between perceptions of social assistance programs in Armenia and Georgia is also significant: 49% of Georgian respondents acknowledge that the state should assist more poor families with social programs. 

Chart 2. Attitude towards extension of  the number of poor families covered, CB 2013

According to Chart 2, while 73% of Georgian respondents agree that social assistance in the country should be given to a larger share of the poor (in exchange, recipients are required do certain actions like searching for work, etc.), 45% of Armenian respondents and 62% of Azerbaijani respondents agree with the statement. In general, the most positive attitude toward expanding social assistance programs for a larger number of poor people has Georgian public. 

Public spending on social protection programs in the Southern Caucasus is exceptionally low (“Social Protection and Social Inclusion in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia”). The social protection and social assistance policies during the last 24 years mainly aimed to ensure basic protection against poverty; however various studies show that they are not efficient for fighting the progressively growing inequality after the collapse of Soviet-Union (SlayB., 2009).