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Why do vulnerable groups miss out on benefits? Research nominated for thesis prize

Why do vulnerable groups fail to make use of benefits that they are entitled to? This is what Max ten Velde researched in his Master’s in Management of the Public Sector thesis, which has been nominated for the Netherlands Court of Audit’s thesis prize.

Vulnerable households miss out on a lot of money because they do not apply for benefits. This is a big problem in the Netherlands that has received little attention, says Max. He gives the example of the Emergency Energy Fund, which was set up in 2023 to help low-income households with high energy bills. ‘The emergency fund was meant for the very lowest incomes but little use was made of it. Those who need the money most make the least use of these kinds of benefits. Something must be going wrong with the policy.’

In his research, Max considered digital skills as a possible explanation for why people do not apply for benefits. To his surprise, he saw that online surveys had been used for previous research on older people’s digital skills. ‘It’s a bit strange to use an online survey to research older people’s digital skills.’ So he used face-to-face surveys instead for his research. He also spoke to experts including policymakers at the Municipality of The Hague and National Ombudsman researchers.

Problems applying for benefits

The research showed that older people face several problems when applying for benefits. ‘In the Zuidwest district of The Hague, where I did the research, there are lots of people with a migrant background whose language proficiency is lacking. Information about benefits is often written in very difficult Dutch. The Tax and Customs Administration is already taking steps to improve that but it’s still a problem.’ It can also be hard to find the right information. ‘There are lots of income-support provisions from municipalities, provinces and central government, but information about these is not centralised.’

Many older people also find it difficult to find and apply for benefits online. Max found a clear relationship between a lack of digital skills and not applying for benefits. The interviews with older people also revealed that many are scared of using the internet. ‘A large percentage found it dangerous to use the internet. They hear stories of scams and don’t like doing things online. I hadn’t considered beforehand that this would play such a big role.’

Thesis Project

Max wrote his thesis with help from the LDE Thesis Projectwhich is for students who want to conduct socially relevant research. The Thesis Project works with stakeholders such as the Municipality of The Hague, housing corporations, local neighbourhood professionals and residents of The Hague Zuidwest district. Students conduct research into real issues that affect this area.

‘Coordinator Mandy Koenraads helped me clearly define my research. We were also given courses on inclusive language, for example, which is really important in this field. I met stakeholders from the neighbourhood at the kick-off meeting and got to speak to staff from the community centre, for example, which holds a walk-in clinic for residents who need help applying for benefits. Through them, it was easy to contact older people to interview. The Thesis Project contacts were really useful.’

Max presented his research results at the final Thesis Project session. Stakeholders from the neighbourhood and staff from the Municipality of The Hague were present. Through the thesis prize, Max now wants to bring the subject to the attention of the Netherlands Court of Audit. ‘That is the institute that deals with evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of policy’, says Max. ‘I hope the presentation that I get to give there and the meetings I have with them will help increase awareness there. Because this really is a big problem.’

The winner of the Netherlands Court of Audit thesis prize will be announced on 1 March.

Text: Tom Janssen
Photo: Pexels

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