As Serbia Adopts Digital Welfare System, the Poorest Often Miss Out

BELGRADE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Jovana Andjela, a single mother from Belgrade, has done odd jobs as a cook, cleaner, even a tour guide, but she relied on state benefits to make ends meet — until last year, when Serbia’s new digital welfare system locked her out.

Anti-poverty campaigners say Andjela is among thousands of low-income Serbians whose benefits have stopped since the government rolled out its Social Card system in 2022 — hailing it as a way to make welfare fairer and tackle fraud.

Andjela, who said she should be entitled to a benefit of about 10,000 Serbian Dinar ($96) each month, received no explanation or means to challenge the decision when she went to a social worker for help.

“[The social worker] said … we believe the Social Card, it’s from the government. And that was it … I can do nothing,” the 43-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I started to cry … I was shocked,” she said, adding that she suspected the system had rejected her because it mistakenly registered several short-lived seasonal jobs and a one-off vocational grant as regular income.

According to local nonprofit A11, up to 27,000 people, about 15% of all recipients, have been removed from the benefits scheme since March 2022, when the Social Card law took effect. It based its estimates on government data.

Officials have said the decline reflects a stronger economy, but opposition lawmakers and advocacy groups have linked it to the new digital system, warning that marginalized people, such as the Roma community and the homeless, have been put at risk.

“It sends the message that you’ve got to rely on yourself,” said Biljana Dordevic, a member of parliament from the Green-Left Front who presented a legal filing to the country’s Constitutional Court in July, arguing that the Social Card could cause “de facto violations of the right to social security.”

It is not clear when the case will be heard.

The government, which did not respond to a request for comment, has said previously the system would “enable a fairer distribution of money for the most socially endangered groups and the establishment of a better control of social benefits.”

Data collection

Much of the criticism from nonprofit groups has focused on the way the new system collects personal data, and uses it to make benefit assessments.

The Social Card system collects 130 pieces of data from numerous state organizations, but recipients do not know how this is used and have little means to challenge refusals or correct apparent mistakes, critics say.

Amnesty International criticized the scale of data collection in an April report, saying that it increased the risk of erroneous or outdated information being used.

Many of those excluded had received letters that “make general reference to the ‘data from electronic database’ [but] do not include any further information, nor offer the applicant an opportunity to clarify or correct the information,” it said.

As in Andjela’s case, the rights group said social workers were often poorly equipped to help fix any errors in the system.

The government said last year that the Social Card system is merely a “legal source of facts,” dismissing criticism that applicants’ benefit claims were being “decided by an algorithm.”

Digital welfare state

Campaigners say the switch to a digital welfare state has also taken a heavier toll on marginalized groups because they have fewer means to challenge any issues that might arise.

This is because they may have restricted access to information services including the internet, as well as less time and money to spend fighting decisions.

They are also disproportionately represented among welfare recipients.

According to 2019 estimates by the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, 84% of Serbia’s Roma settlement households received some form of social benefit.

In Jaluki Rit, a suburban settlement 23 kilometers from Belgrade, 36-year-old Roma woman Nadja is currently receiving social benefit, but worries that she could be locked out of the system.

“Often we are in a situation where we have to choose between paying the bills or living,” she said as a group of children gathered around.

One watched videos on an old smartphone with a shattered screen.

Like Nadja, who collects and sell snails for use in cooking and soap-making, many Roma claimants fear any earnings at all could trigger the Social Card system to cut off their benefits.

Another Roma woman, a 42-year-old who asked to remain anonymous, said her benefits had been refused even though her husband was in prison serving a sentence for electricity theft on the grounds that he was still fit to work.

He will not be released for at least another six months.

“A lot of people here don’t have money to pay the bills,” she said.

Social workers should be able to make decisions about individual applicants to avoid these issues, but experts say they are understaffed, overworked and sometimes do not understand the system.

“A change in [the] beneficiary’s situation is documented instantly, and a social worker is ‘warned’ to evaluate again. Previously the evaluations were done in regular intervals,” Natalija Perisic, a social policy professor at the University of Belgrade, said in an email.

“Even though the current system sounds more fair, it is actually not. [If a] beneficiary earns any amount in a single month it will be reported and they will not have any funds in the following months.”

Dordevic, the MP, said the issue raised bigger concerns about the impact of digitization in the provision of state services — from welfare to healthcare and education.

Sensitive personal data

Among the 130 data points gathered by the Social Card system is sensitive personal information that could reveal a recipient’s sexual orientation or their nationality, digital rights campaigners say.

They say it also increases the risk of state surveillance among benefit applicants because it draws on personal data held by other state agencies including the Interior Ministry, tax administration and employment service.

“Protection of personal data within the government services is not really on the high level in this country,” said Danilo Curcic, program coordinator at A11.

The government has rejected calls from campaigners to release any code behind the Social Card because it is a “business secret of the Ministry.”

Andjela, who now lives with her son in a 20-square-meter apartment, said she had been forced to borrow money from friends since the benefit payments stopped.

She hopes to appeal the decision.

“I just want a little help from this government … to de-stress, to pay electricity, to get breathing space,” she said.