There have been promising steps forward in Turkey’s social policy in the last 15 years, from the health sector to education. This is a natural result of a long-lasting stable political atmosphere; however, expert analysis says that there is still a lot of work to be done.
One of the most crucial transformations was the introduction of the Family and Social Policies Ministry in 2011, which is responsible for family affairs and social services. “Thanks to this reform, social policies regarding areas outside of working life such as poverty, disability and elderliness that consist of socially disadvantaged groups have been united under one institution,” said Faruk Taşcı, an academic at the Faculty of Economics at Istanbul University.
Although fighting extreme poverty has been at the center of social policy programs for years in Turkey, with the establishment of the Family and Social Policies Ministry, there have been more serious steps toward overcoming it. An integrated social assistance system has been developed by the government to get rid of poverty. In 2013, 1.26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) started to be given for social assistance spending, which is a highly increased percentage compared to the past. As a result, extreme poverty fell from 13 percent in 2002 to 4.5 percent in 2012, as 2015 World Bank data suggests.
Another significant change in social policy in terms of working life was the integration of all social security organizations under the root of the Social Security Institution in 2006. Considered a “milestone” by Taşcı, this system radically reformed the country’s previous pension system and put an end to the unequal, corporatist character and fragmented structure of the previous system. The reform regulated pension rules by reducing the accrual rate, while gradually increasing the age of retirement and contribution period. In this system, the state also started to contribute as well as employers and employees.
Other important reform areas are the health and education sectors. The 2003 Health Transformation Program has produced significant improvements in Turkey’s health care system in terms of access, insurance coverage and services. The country expanded health insurance coverage with targeted programs such as the Green Card program for the poor, which increased access to health services. Near-universal health insurance coverage, increase in financial security and improvement in equity in access to health care nationwide were achieved in Turkey in 2014.
Education is the area that has the biggest share of the national budget because the government desires to improve its quality. Access to schools was one of the main points that made significant progress over the years. In 2013, almost universal primary school enrollment was reached, while secondary school enrollment was 76.7 percent. Compulsory education was extended from eight to 12 years in 2012, which later gained a form of the 4+4+4 school system consisting of eight years of primary school followed by four years of secondary school. According to Taşcı, the main actors in social policy in Turkey are local and central governments. The latter is the most active, while the former suffers from low budgets. Yet, the local government comes to the scene whenever the central government fails to reach out to a subject. Other important actors are NGO’s, which mainly started to become active after the 1999 Marmara Earthquake. Yet, as Taşcı suggests, despite their frequent appearance in the media, they actually have a small part of the share of Turkey’s social policy. Taşcı added, “However, there is also an invisible actor among all of these actors – the traditional family. The emphasis on the family even in the title of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies is good evidence for its importance.”
Thanks to all of these reforms, the United Nations Development Program’s 2014 Human Development Report placed Turkey in the high human development group since the Human Development Index of the country increased from 0.671 in 2005 to 0.759 in 2013. Yet, despite progress in social policies, it is still a matter of discussion whether Turkey is a welfare state or not.
According to Taşcı, for a state to be a welfare state, its policies must be preventive, meaning that it has the necessary measures for dealing with a problem even before that problem emerges as a social issue, rather than urgent, daily steps that are designed for rescuing the day.
“These steps in education, the efforts of the state in employment and urban transformation movements all show that Turkey has the tendency to become mature. Yet, there is still the struggle for getting out its current position,” Taşcı said, indicating that Turkey has a unique welfare state with multiple actors and social policy provisions. “There is a contribution from every actor to some extent in this type of welfare state.”
One of the biggest deficits of social policy in Turkey, according to Taşcı, is that there is no blend between the past and modern day provisions despite the enormous historical experience on the issue. “Therefore, it is not possible to talk about rooted, long-reaching steps,” he said.
Another problem is the non-integrative nature of regulations despite the existing constitutional base. This means that a provision that is suitable for one article can be illegal for another one, which creates several problems even at the local level. “The solution is to have a uniform regulation for all social policies of all social policy actors,” Taşcı said, indicating that although it seems hard, it is not impossible to achieve.