Two Years of the Social Card Law: Fair Distribution of Financial Social Assistance Remains Out of Reach, Law Should Be Abolished

At least 44,000 people have lost their right to financial social assistance since the Social Card Law came into force.

Over the last two years, those in our society who are most in need and rely on financial social assistance have been living in apprehension because of the undisclosed algorithm that powers the Social Card Information System.

Because of all the harmful effects this law brings, A 11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights advocates for the abolition of this legal solution and the cessation of the implementation of the Social Card Information System.

State Experiment on the Poor

The Social Card Register, in one place, encompasses around 135 sets of personal data of social service beneficiaries, as well as their relatives and so-called “related individuals.” The Government of Serbia and the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs envisioned the Social Card as a solution for “a fairer distribution of financial social assistance” and “improving the quality of work of state bodies in the field of social protection,” insisting that there are numerous abuses in this area, without providing exact data on who is behind these abuses, and how and when they are carried out.

Rather than upgrading the current system, a completely new system was launched without sufficient training for social workers, and recipients of financial social assistance were kept uninformed.

Over the last two years during the implementation of the Law, the introduction of a new system for making decisions on citizens’ rights using semi-automatic algorithms – whether their income has increased, whether they have acquired more assets, and whether these changes have also occurred with related individuals – has left the individuals without financial social assistance; not only are these individuals innocent of manipulating the system, but they have also fallen victim to hasty, negligent, and non-transparent work processes. The role of social workers has shifted towards addressing notifications of changes in individuals’ status, rather than engaging in fieldwork that would provide a deeper understanding of the living conditions of financial social assistance recipients.

So, the semi-automated system reported incredible earnings from jobs that some individuals never actually had, seasonal employment was falsely used as a justification for cutting off welfare benefits, and social workers were directed to inaccurate provisions of the Law on Social Protection.

The A 11 Initiative exposed a range of mistakes in this registry in practice. Together with the system’s lack of responsiveness, this results in the creation of (new) adverse benchmarks in social welfare. For instance, because of a lack of comprehension regarding the practices of recyclable material collectors, a case was recorded in Belgrade where a collector was documented to have a monthly income that suggested a single individual managed to collect and sell 22 tons of cardboard in just one month, a scenario that goes against basic principles of logic.

The A 11 Initiative exposed instances where social workers overlooked beneficiaries’ proofs of errors in their stated incomes, ultimately causing them to lose access to social support, thus without any social assistance to escape poverty.

The Ministry’s stance that the implementation of the Social Card will eliminate abuses is neither justified nor reasonable. The attempt to essentially test semi-automated, algorithmic decision-making on society’s most marginalized individuals is an attempt to stifle any potential complaints from them, which prompts the question – which group will be the next to experience untested technologies?

As per the official data of the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Affairs shared with our legal team, over the course of two years of enforcing the law, individuals receiving financial social assistance and impacted by the Social Card filed just 361 complaints against rulings of the Centers for Social Work. This number is trivial when compared to the more than 100,000 notifications of suspected increases in income and assets of social assistance beneficiaries and their families.

The A 11 Initiative was not given information by the Ministry regarding the number of citizens who were able to access financial social assistance through the algorithm, or those who benefited from the system to survive. The undisclosed nature of this information suggests that decision-makers may not have had the best interests of the poorest in mind when it comes to the Social Card.

Constitutional Court at a standstill and Silence over Injustice

In April 2022, the A 11 Initiative took action by filing a petition with the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Serbia to review the constitutionality of the Law on the Social Card, given its conflicts with various national and international legal acts. There has been no response from the Constitutional Court yet.

The current number of individuals in Serbia receiving financial social assistance stands at around 168,000, showing a continuous decrease over the years. In 2018 financial social assistance was received by 244,160 citizens, while this number went down to 226,897 in 2019; before the Social Card Law took effect on March 1, 2022, in February of that year, 211,266 individuals in Serbia were already receiving financial social assistance.

The number of people receiving financial social assistance dropped further by the end of 2022, with 182,773 recipients recorded. By February 1, 2024, the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Affairs recorded 168,307 recipients of financial social assistance.

Given the lack of any notable increase in the total budget for financial social assistance in recent years (this amount never exceeds 13 billion dinars), and any substantial growth in the amount of financial social assistance, it is perplexing how nearly 44,000 citizens of Serbia were removed from the system within a span of two years, from March 2022 to February 2024.

With 11,445 dinars in financial social assistance, the A 11 Initiative has recently highlighted that this amount falls short of providing for survival, let alone a dignified existence.

Learn more about the actions taken by the A 11 Initiative to fix the extensive damage caused by the Social Card on the website called the (Anti)Social Card, dedicated to this topic, offering in-depth explanations and real-life examples of how the algorithm affects individuals who are striving to survive.

In Belgrade, 5 March 2024