Cities working towards inclusive care systems for all

13 May 2022

“Care is an important work as it sustains life as it involves childcare, elderly care, education, healthcare, social and domestic services,” commented Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights. “And all of these have a strong local dimension.” 

Many cities have put in place ambitious adaptations to their social and care services to respond to a clear need to welcome people fleeing Ukraine.

“Support systems were challenged to scale up, but cities adapted,” said Philippe Cori, Deputy Regional Director at UNICEF. 

Throughout this crisis, efforts made at the local level have demonstrated a heretofore unknown robustness in the social care system, which remains at risk. Given such efforts, however, participants at Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, which took place in Barcelona this week, share a desire for cities’ social leadership to be recognised at national and EU levels.

The EU care strategy should get input from local governments,” concurred Dominique Bé, from the European Commission. 

In fact, even more than this, the experience from cities is that collaboration at all political levels, including NGOs and civil society organisations, is crucial to guarantee coverage, availability, quality and access to social and care services. 

Cities as hosts

Cities are central in the reception of refugees, despite not always having competencies on asylum, therefore they should be key partners in designing integration policies and receiving funding.

“Cities can matter at the EU level,” commented Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas, Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. “Eurocities has shown that they are key to provide humanitarian aid and support other cities in Ukraine. They work for peace, receive refugees, think about the future and make the world more secure, and construct better and caring cities.”

Cities have rapidly adapted their care systems to set up plans to welcome and settle those refugees. The Eurocities caring cities statement demands more measures and more support for all refugees and cities.

Indeed, many cities have already embarked on local social care reforms. Others are engaging in national debates about reforming social welfare policies, and making use of the national recovery plans. For instance, Stuttgart has adopted a ‘Pact for Integration’ and is investing €77 million from municipal budget each year into social integration measures to support refugees in all areas. 

Cities setting the example

Bianca Faragau-Tavares, Policy Advisor at Eurocities said, “cities’ actions have reached the hearts and minds of EU leaders, standing as a clear example of commitment, inspiring national policy reforms and providing the needed impetus to push social rights forward. 

As was discussed across the course of this three day conference that attracted over 170 city representatives, Eurocities is working hard to reflect the action taken at the city level in the EU’s upcoming legislative files in areas, such as digital skills, childcare provision and minimum income.

“Social inclusion starting with children is an antidote against attacks to our social system and cohesion – and cities are fundamental,” says Cori.

Placing the child at the centre of childcare, for example, and counting on funding to improve services is central to many cities strategies. With this in mind, EU member states should ensure action plans for the EU Child Guarantee empower local services and alliances between institutions and families.

Given the strong achievements that can be made at city level, there is a lot of room for further support to be granted to local authorities. Warsaw, for example, doubled the number of places available in childcare in just two years, following its pledge made in 2019. However, much more can be achieved if the EU, along with member states helped develop local frameworks to bridge the gap between public and private, and look at a more holistic and integrated approach to education services.

Similar may be said for minimum income schemes. The EU could set a clear standard by ensuring adequate levels that match the cost of living, and housing of workers. Lyon metropole stands out as a good example for its solidarity income scheme for young people aged 18-25. 

On another topic, Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona noted “the digital is social and economy-related. Everything is related to everything.

Indeed, digital skills are a focus point for cities. Local administrations have called to develop European guidelines to define the digital divide according to realities on the local level, as well as requesting direct funding to build capacity and expand the use of digital technologies for social inclusion.

To ensure this inclusion, empowering citizens to confidently access different technologies among groups such as the elderly, children, and vulnerable people becomes essential.

The need for reform  

One key reflection from the conference was that the overall capacity of social services is at risk and should be addressed with urgency. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine come on top of well-known upcoming challenges the social care system faces, such as an ageing population. 

Challenges are not new,” said Thomas Fabian, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, “although the magnitude is putting additional pressure on our administrations. 

Thomas Fabian at Social Affairs Forum 2022. Photo by Barcelona City Council

That’s why cities call for support from national and European governments. “Funding needs to be reconnected to cities as frontliners,” said Philippe Cori. 

According to Dominique Bé, the care system is still based on the much younger population of the 60s, which does not match the current necessities. A persistent decrease in birth rates and a consistent increase in life expectancy are triggering a transition toward a much older population in Europe. 

Not only that, but, Bé insisted, “tomorrow’s crisis is the poverty crisis.” The homelessness profiles have changed, resulting in “anyone being able to become homeless today,”. This “shows the social system is crumbling in all aspects,” which requires a re-budgeting at all levels – EU, national, and cities.

Towards a resilient care system 

According to Kim van Sparrentak, Member of the European Parliament, we were already in a crisis before the war in Ukraine, even before the pandemic. The healthcare system was not able to provide enough beds for those in need of hospital accommodation. 

The MEP criticised the economic model brought back after the pandemic. “Europe’s promise is that of taking care of children, of the elderly but now Europe is privatising everything,” she exclaimed. 

Investing more in the care sector would recognise frontline workers, such as those reported on throughout the Covid19 crisis, by establishing fair wages and working conditions, but, Van Sparrentak highlighted the precariousness of workers in the care sector and gender inequality.  

Many female workers in irregular situations end up in the care sector without a formal agreement. Not only that, but a lot of care work is invisible labour (and therefore not accounted for in the GDP and not considered employment), with women spending on average 13 hours more per week than men on domestic duties. 

Aldona Machnowska-Góra, Deputy Mayor of Warsaw highlighted the importance of thinking “about crises in the future underpinned by values such as social cohesion, supporting civil society organisations and NGOs, and building alliances (intergenerational and intercultural).”

The European care strategy is expected to set a framework to guide member states in developing sustainable long-term care policies. The goal is to ensure better, inclusive and more affordable access to quality services accompanied by better working conditions in the sector.  

And, given their strong experience and frontline carers, cities look forward to contributing as partners in the upcoming initiative. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer