Welfare Beyond Social Rights: How Charities Are Stepping Up to Aid Non-Citizens in Sweden

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Johan Vamstad and Magnus Karlsson. Click here to access the article.

Sweden and the other Nordic countries have come to represent a particular type of social democratic, universal welfare state in literature on social policy. Much of the more recent literature however documents research into how these countries have diverged from the Nordic welfare model. Our study adds to this recent literature. What we find is that a new social landscape is emerging for some of the most marginalised groups of people in Sweden. By studying eight charitable organisations, the Swedish City Missions, we have identified a new role and a new level of responsibility for this type of organisation in Sweden. 

The development we try to capture can be described in terms of rights. One of the basic characteristics of the traditional Nordic welfare model was that benefits and services were provided as a social right to citizens. It has been said that Sweden came closer than any country in history to offer truly universal social rights to its citizens. What we now see are growing welfare needs for people in Sweden who are not citizens, which challenges the traditional conception of social rights. This has contributed to a gradual shift from a social rights to a human rights rationale for support of the poorest and most vulnerable in Sweden. We argue that it is this shift that has given the City Missions their new role. This basic argument says that while the public sector institutions are still guided by social rights to citizens, charitable organisations can act based on human rights in the new social landscape. 

The City Missions and organisations like them have a fairly long history in Sweden; the largest one, in Stockholm, has been around since 1853. For most of their history they have been a quaint novelty, an Anglo-American type of Christian charity in a social-democratic welfare state. Their role has largely been to complement the public welfare system with non-essential services. Our study shows that the City Missions are now taking on an entirely different role. The main difference from before is simply the amount of aid and support they provide. Demand for their support has gone up and the City Missions are struggling to scale up their organisations at the same pace. The scaling up has led the City Missions to become more professional and to add new types of services that can bring in more revenue, like taking on paid contracts to provide services for local authorities.  

The increase in demand in large part come from groups that are either entirely new to Sweden, or groups that were previously much smaller. These are groups with limited or unclear rights to public welfare, like vulnerable EU-citizens, undocumented migrants and third country migrants coming from other EU countries. The largest of these groups are the EU-citizens, and a majority of these are homeless Roma people. This group is effectively shut out of the public welfare system and the City Missions in our study find that they have been given the primary responsibility to provide essential services for this relatively large group of people. It was, according to the organisations themselves, the City Missions that first brought attention to the rapidly growing problem of homeless Roma people, about 10 years ago, both locally and nationally. Today, almost half of their total food distribution goes to this group.

The Roma people are described as a ‘difficult’ group by the City Missions. The public is reluctant to donate money for the Roma. Local authorities may provide some funding for the City Missions to provide support for this group, which the authorities cannot directly support themselves. This is, however, politically sensitive. 

The City Missions are not only seeing an increase in the number of people in need: the needs are also becoming increasingly severe and difficult to address. The City Missions describe how their volunteers must now perform advanced social work with clients of all ages, with sometimes complex combinations of problems. Amongst the people seeking help are rootless young men with serious addictions and mental health issues, who sometimes have no personal ties and no experience of an ordered life in Sweden. The City Missions in our study provided a mix of different examples of difficult cases they would traditionally not have encountered. Amongst these were a young woman with serious mental health issues who had turned down help from social services, and an old man brought by the police who had just evicted him from his apartment. 

The growing responsibility for more people with more difficult problems has led the City Missions to form a new relationship with government and the public sector. This new relationship is in part due to the growth of the City Missions and the role they take on as a serious welfare actor and often partner to the public welfare institutions. It is also, however, an effect of the increasing marketisation of the Swedish welfare state. Some City Missions are, at least in part, re-branding themselves as professional service providers and as such they enter competition with for-profit corporations in public tendering and voucher systems.

All these changes have also changed the way the City Missions view themselves and their mission. The City Missions claim to have realised that they can no longer wait for the state to address all social problems, sometimes the City Missions must take the initiative, as in the case with the Roma EU-migrants. Sometimes their initiatives work to bring awareness and an active response from local governments, sometimes they are themselves left with ”ownership” of the issue.  

The growing importance of charitable organisations for individuals with limited or unclear rights to welfare services is, of course, not just a Swedish or Nordic phenomenon. International mobility is likely to grow globally as conflicts, economic inequality and the climate crisis continues to uproot people. It is therefore likely that we have only seen the beginning of a shift from public, general service provision based on social rights, to non-profit charity efforts, justified and driven by human rights.


About the authors

Johan Vamstad is Associate Professor at the Center for Civil Society Research at Marie Cederschiöld University in Stockholm. His most recent publications cover topics like civil society and the Swedish welfare state, philanthropy, and co-production of welfare services. Email: johan.vamstad@mchs.se. Web: mchs.se/ccf

Magnus Karlsson, Professor, is Head of Center for Civil Society Research at Marie Cederschiöld University in Stockholm. He is recently conducting research on the roles of civil society organisations in poverty as well as in disaster readiness, response and recovery. Email: magnus.karlsson@mchs.se. Web: mchs.se/ccf

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