Poverty and Social Protection

Since the ILO was founded in 1919, its primary concern has been to develop international policies and programs to improve working and living conditions worldwide. Within this context, social protection has been a central issue for the Organization. The fact that more than half of the ILO’s International Labor Conventions relate to social protection issues, most notably Convention 102 on minimum standards of Social Security, demonstrates the important role that the Organization has played in the development of social protection.

With more than five billion people lacking adequate social security, a new international labor standard adopted by the International Labor Conference in June 2012 calls for the provision of essential health care and benefits as well as basic income security constituting national social protection floors. Such basic social protection, i.e. essential health care and basic income security throughout the lifecycle reduces poverty, inequality, ill health and the number of premature deaths. The new ILO Recommendation is the first autonomous social security recommendation to be voted on in 68 years. It comes 24 years after the last legal instrument on social protection was discussed by delegates from governments, workers and employers back in 1988. The Recommendation requests countries to implement their Social Protection Floors as early as possible in national development processes.

At the 2013 International Labor Conference there was increased attention on the nexus between social protection and demographic shifts.

Social Protection in ILO Programs

The concept of social protection encompasses almost all of the ILO’s areas of work and is closely related to the Decent Work agenda. In particular, research and experiences have shown that a social protection floor is extremely beneficial for children: cash transfers lead to increased school attendance and reduce the “time budget” available for child labor. From an intergenerational impact, ensuring investment in the human development of the child reduces intergenerational transfer of poverty and thus the need for child labor in the next generation. Social protection was therefore identified as one of the three areas of public policy to promote effective and sustainable action against child labor, as stipulated in the Global Action Plan Against the Worst Forms of Child Labor. A recently agreed inter agency statement makes the case that in the design of social protection programs it is important to take account of their impact on children. It concludes that while many social protection measures – ranging from pensions to unemployment insurance – already benefit children without explicitly targeting them, even relatively small changes in the way children are considered in the design, implementation and evaluation of social protection programs can make a major difference. Making social protection more focused on children’s welfare has the potential to benefit not only children, but also their families, communities and national development as a whole.

Social Protection in the US

Social protection in the United States was established through the Social Security Act of 1935. It provides old age, survivors, and disability insurance benefits to workers and their families. Since 1965 it has also included health insurance benefits under the Medicare program. Social protection in the United States, as outlined in the Social Security Act, consists of three overarching services: benefits to workers and their families; health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program); and other safety net programs that provide aid to individuals and families facing hardship. In FY 2012 the federal government spent $1.9 trillion on these programs, which was close to 55 percent of the total federal budget.

The ILO Washington Office promotes social protection by engaging U.S. constituents and multilateral organizations in the discussion and design of social protection systems. In particular, the Washington Office facilitates the dialogue between the ILO’s experts on Social Protection and Social Security with Washington based International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF as well as think tanks.


  1. Universal Health Coverage Day 2014

    Global health protection crisis leaves almost 40% of the world's population without any coverage

    December 09, 2014

    New ILO study reveals large health coverage gaps, including in West African countries, where 80 per cent have no coverage. 

  2. International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2014

    Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology ? - A statement by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General

    December 03, 2014

    Today, more than 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability. The stark reality is that the prevalence of disability is rising, not decreasing. But technology holds enormous promise in breaking down barriers and increasing the choices and opportunities available to persons with disabilities, particularly in the world of work. That’s why this year’s theme – Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology – is so pertinent.