Jani Erola sitting by a table and making a puzzle.

INVEST: Missing Pieces of Welfare State

The Finnish welfare system is a success story enjoying global admiration. However, there is one central deficit in the current welfare system: it does not sufficiently help families with accumulated disadvantages. The goal of the INVEST project’s researchers is to build a Welfare State 2.0 in which disadvantages are tackled with targeted interventions.

Led by Professor of Sociology Jani Erola, the research consortium received great news at the beginning of the year. The Academy of Finland selected the research consortium INVEST by the University of Turku and National Institute for Health and Welfare THL into its flagship programme. This means a funding of €8.25 million for four years that will highly likely be extended with four more years. In the eyes of a researcher, this enables focusing on conducting research on a long-term basis instead of the time-consuming research funding application circus.

– Now, we’ll be able to concentrate on creating the Welfare State 2.0, says Erola.

No completely new welfare state model is hidden in the term. In fact, Erola praises the current welfare system for being mostly an excellent and perfected model with the profits and cost effects of every single euro carefully thought out. Yet, one crucial piece is missing.

– The current model is highly purposeful is situations where a family is faced with temporary unemployment and income poverty and depend on social security. However, if all of these factors occur together with parental low education, our current system is not able to help. We want to reveal those gaps the welfare state is not able to get at.

After that, we’ll be able to carry out targeted interventions that can be used to increase well-being and competence, says Erola.

Accumulated Disadvantages Not a Direct Sentence to Misery

Researchers talk about experienced well-being, but the government’s willingness to fund research also reflects the objective to maintain economic and social sustainability. It is expensive to help those with accumulated disadvantages, and at the same time, the supporting actions do not necessarily lead to the desired outcome.

– According to the calculations by the National Institute for Health and Welfare, one dropout, i.e. a person who doesn’t continue their studies after comprehensive school, will need societal services worth of €350,000 more than a person who has continued their studies, mentions Erola as an example.

– If we could diminish the number of the services needed by the dropouts with, let’s say, a quarter, we’d be able to save one billion euros per birth cohort, says Erola.

Based on earlier studies, we know that disadvantage factors pile up at different phases of life, so the most sensible solution is to invest in children and young people.

– At the same time, those who experience several different types of disadvantages during childhood are not a considerably large group, approximately 1–2 per cent per age group, says Erola.

For instance, out of those born in the recession year 1991, the number is 650–1,300 people.

One problem is how to find those in need of help, as the situation cannot be explained by accumulated disadvantages only.

– We know that half of the children born in families with accumulated disadvantages are doing just fine as adults. We’re interested in the other half. We want to find the reasons and factors that distinguish these two groups.

Roots Deep in University’s Research

Having received the funding decision in January, the project’s first year will involve compiling the research groups and building the prerequisites. In spring, the project recruited doctoral candidates and researchers at different phases of the researcher career and started to build the infrastructure. In addition to the postgraduate programme, a new international Master’s degree programme starting in 2020 will be introduced around the themes of INVEST.

However, the project does not start completely from scratch. INVEST’s roots are in five research groups of the University of Turku that have already for years sought for information and means on how to increase well-being in society. Those roots formed the foundation that also convinced the Academy of Finland of the quality of INVEST.

One of the background research projects is Erola’s ERC project INDIRECT that studies the intergenerational inheritance of disadvantages. The second one, led by Professor of Sociology Mikko Niemelä, is the Tackling Inequalities in Time of Austerity (TITA) project that represents strong system research. The third and fourth projects are the KiVa antibullying program, led by Professor of Psychology Christina Salmivalli, and the Opintokamu programme helping secondary school students. Led by Professor of Child Psychiatry Andre Sourander, the fifth and sixth projects are the Strongest Families programme helping with children’s challenging behaviour as early as possible as well as the APEX consortium helping with child and adolescent mental health issues early on.

At the launch phase, INVEST includes social and medical scientists, but the goal is to extend to other fields as well. Multidisciplinarity is like a loupe that can be used to see the different aspects of a complex issue.

– We know that mere economic compensation isn’t enough to help families suffering with accumulated disadvantages. The interventions can’t concern only families either, as broader communities,such as schools , have to be engaged. Actions carried out at school might break the vicious cycle of disadvantages, but the school environment might also strengthen the disadvantages, for example, in the form of bullying at school, says Erola.

Politicians’ Support Needed for Implementing Interventions

Jani Erola is used to leading a world-class research group. As the first Finnish social scientist, he received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2014. Before the funding, his research group consisted of one other researcher, occasionally two. Along with the ERC funding, the number increased to seven or eight.

– The main profit of ERC is the fact that it has aided international collaboration. We didn’t have to prove our scientific level anymore, as ERC had done it for us, says Erola.

A similar affirmation on the quality of the research is the selection to the flagship programme. The Academy of Finland selected only six top-level clusters of expertise from the whole of Finland. Thus, the Academy’s expectations are sky-high. High-level research is expected to be combined with societal impact increasing economic growth, strong co-operation with key partners, and adaptability.

– Societal impact is a factor that has rapidly gained a significant position also in research. At the time I received the ERC funding, such impact wasn’t discussed at all.

Alongside traditional academic impact, the research must now also affect society, says Erola.

Within INVEST, impact has been embedded into everything. The University of Turku’s members in the consortium have already gained strong impact expertise, but in this domain, Finland’s top operators include the National Institute for Health and Welfare that is part of INVEST.

– The National Institute for Health and Welfare has highly strong experience in taking part in different kinds of societal policy processes, says Erola.

Those are the positions that INVEST, too, must be able to access in order to realise a large intervention.

Intervention is a frequent word in Erola’s discourse. With interventions, he refers to situations where specific supporting actions are targeted at a certain group. During and after the follow-up phase, researchers analyse the impact of the measures by comparing the targets of the interventions with the control group that did not get any supporting actions.

According to Erola, a few smaller interventions can be carried out, but at the back of his mind, he has an idea for at least one large intervention. The competence for it exists already, as the INVEST community also includes Professor of Practice Olli Kangas, who was responsible for research in the basic income experiment that was among the largest interventions in Finland.

Example for the Whole World

The starting point for the research in INVEST is the Finnish welfare system, but the topic cannot be investigated only inside the Finnish borders. Erola highlights the significance of international collaboration and comparative research.

– We must gain international comparative data. We have several international sets of research data and statistics in use which can provide a new perspective and offer new information. One of these is the European Social Survey in which the University of Turku has been responsible for coordinating Finland’s data right from the start. In addition, we can use the National Institute for Health and Welfare’s own sets of data says Erola.

Erola muses that if successful, INVEST can provide an example for developing the welfare state models of all Nordic countries.


Text: Erja Hyytiäinen

Photo: Hanna Oksanen

Translation: Aura Jaakkola