Flavien Felder and Thea Bächler, IFF Institute of Federalism, University of Fribourg
Article 115 of the Swiss Constitution states that persons in need shall be supported by their canton of residence. However, the subsidiarity principle allows the cantons to delegate competences to the municipalities and almost all 26 Swiss cantons have delegated this specific competence to the municipalities. Although in this field municipalities do not have a legislative competence per se since the laws are adopted at the cantonal level, they have the obligation to enforce them at the local level. Not only can cantons push municipalities to comply with the cantonal legislation but they can also force them to follow the federal guidelines in the field of social aid, without violating the municipal autonomy guaranteed by the Federal Constitution in its Article 50.
Today, social aid is seen as one of the best examples for the relevance of the subsidiarity principle. It is argued that the municipalities are closest to their citizens and know the economic and social reality best, which makes them most competent to deal with situations of poverty and to support persons in need. This has mainly a historic reasoning as the Heimatorte used to be in charge for people in poverty since the mediaeval times. Although this traditionally local responsibility has been maintained since then, tension raises because of the increasing financial burden on the municipalities, especially the rural ones. This may lead to a negative competition among municipalities.
This practice is particularly relevant for the report section 5 on intergovernmental relations of local government since smaller municipalities are often encouraged to collaborate. Indeed, they are allowed (and sometimes obliged) to group in ‘social aid regions’ and establish regional social aid services.
The practice is also relevant for the report section 3 on local financial arrangements as the cantons and the municipalities, when negotiating their financial contributions to the inter-municipal equalization fund, want the social assistance burden to be duly taken into account.
The purpose of social aid is to ensure the minimum subsistence level and to promote economic and personal independence. It also aims at integrating the people in need, who can neither be supported by their families nor claim other legal benefits. Thus, social aid must not be mistaken with other social insurances that cover a specific risk (health, accident, unemployment, disability, aging, maternity, etc.).
For example, the Canton of Fribourg has 24 regional social services, all established by the municipalities which must collaborate in setting up joint social services. Some cover an urban population, while others are based in rural areas. The municipalities or group of municipalities which create a social service office also set up a social commission which represents the municipality in the field of social assistance. According to Article 20 of the Social Assistance Act (LASoc) of the Canton of Fribourg, the social commission has the last word since it:
- decides on the granting, refusal, modification, abolition and reimbursement of financial aid falling under Article 7; it determines the form, duration and amount;
- takes decisions relating to the social integration contract. It can, by decision, cancel or modify the contract if the person in need does not fulfill their obligations or if the measure proves to be inadequate;
- determines the social aid office to which beneficiaries are connected.
Interestingly, according to Article 32 of the LASoc, the operating costs of the social services are fully borne by the municipalities while the financial assistance and the costs linked to social integration measures are covered to 40 per cent by the canton and to 60 per cent by the municipalities. The financial burden on the municipalities is significant and contributes to political debates on the repartition of competencies among the canton and the municipalities.
Favre points out one difference between urban and rural social services. According to her, within social service offices located in urban municipalities, social workers are more numerous and can work in teams, but they are not always in direct contact with their social commission and their internal organization is usually more hierarchical.
It would certainly be interesting to conduct a comparative study of the 26 Swiss cantons focusing on the social aid systems to identify urban-rural divides in greater detail. In 2016, the University of Applied Sciences released a study on the comparison of indicators of social assistance in 14 Swiss cities. According to its authors, urban and peri-urban cities are more concerned with social aid since the amount of persons in need – namely the ratio between the number of social assistance recipients and the total population – is higher in urban and peri-urban municipalities than in regions that are more rural. Unfortunately, they do not provide any specific recommendations on how to improve the urban-rural interplay.
— — ‘Quelles sont les prestations de l’aide sociale et comment obtenir de l’aide’ (Etat de Fribourg, 9 June 2020) <https://www.fr.ch/vie-quotidienne/parcours-de-vie/quelles-sont-les-prestations-de-laide-sociale-et-comment-obtenir-de-laide>
Dubach P and others, ‘Raisons des différences entre les cantons dans les dépenses d’aide sociale’ (Federal Statistical Office 2011) <https://www.buerobass.ch/fileadmin/Files/2011/BFS_2011_Ursachen_kant_Ausgunterschiede_Sozialhilfe_Kurzf_fr.pdf>
Favre E, ‘Une comparaison du fonctionnement de l’aide sociale dans six cantons romands’ (Artias 2017) <https://www.artias.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Artias-Comparaison_fonctionnement_aide_sociale.pdf>
Schmocker B (ed), ‘Comparaison des indicateurs de l’aide sociale de villes suisses’ (2016 Report, Berner Fachhochschule 2017) <https://staedteinitiative.ch/cmsfiles/fr_indicateurs_aidesocial_rapport_2016.pdf> Website of the social actions institutions of the Romandie and Tessin, <https://artias.ch/>
 Only the cantons of Geneva, Tessin and Jura have assigned this task to a cantonal administration.
 Stéphane Grodecki, ‘Les compétences communales – comparaison intercantonale’ in Thierry Tanquerel and François Bellanger (eds), L’avenir juridique des communes (Schulthess 2007) 69.
 Elisa Favre, ‘Une comparaison du fonctionnement de l’aide sociale dans six cantons romands’ (Artias 2017) 3.
 Beat Schmocker (ed), ‘Comparaison des indicateurs de l’aide sociale de villes suisses’ (2016 Report, Berner Fachhochschule 2017) <https://staedteinitiative.ch/cmsfiles/fr_indicateurs_aidesocial_rapport_2016.pdf>.