As Russia makes the transition from a command economy to a partial free-market system, the provision of an effective social safety net for its citizens assumes increasing urgency. A 1994 World Bank report described the current social-protection system as inappropriate for the market-oriented economy toward which Russia supposedly was striving. Among the major shortcomings noted in the report were the continued major role played by enterprises as suppliers of welfare services, as they had been in the Soviet period; the absence of any coverage for large groups of people and the inadequate level of benefits in some regions; a growing disparity between a shrinking wage base and the demands placed on the system; and the failure to target the neediest recipients. As the economic transition of the 1990s forces more of Russia's citizens into poverty, the state has tried to maintain the comprehensive Soviet system with severely constrained resources.
The system's inefficiency is exacerbated by its fragmentation. As in the Soviet period, allowances and benefits are administered and financed by diverse agencies, including four extrabudgetary funds, several ministries, and the lower levels of government. The Ministry of Social Protection is the primary federal agency handling welfare programs. However, that ministry focuses almost exclusively on the needs of people who are retired or disabled; other vulnerable groups receive much less attention. The four extrabudgetary funds that provide cash and in-kind social welfare benefits at the federal level are the Social Insurance Fund, the Pension Fund, the Employment Fund, and the Fund for Social Support.
Social security and welfare programs provide modest support for the most vulnerable segments of Russia's population: elderly pensioners, veterans, infants and children, expectant mothers, families with more than one child, invalids, and people with disabilities. These programs are inadequate, however, and a growing proportion of Russia's population lives on the threshold of poverty. Inflation has a particularly deleterious effect on households that rely on social subsidies. Women traditionally have outnumbered men in such households.
The Fund for Social Support supplements a variety of in-kind social assistance programs in Russia. It is financed through the Ministry of Social Protection and supplements social welfare programs at the subnational level. The federal government has transferred most responsibility for social welfare, health, and education programs to subnational organs but has failed to ensure their access to adequate revenue. The total allocation of transfers from the federal budget to localities amounted to less than 2 percent of Russia's gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary) in 1992. Thus, the quantity and quality of social services at the local level--including the provision of food vouchers and cash payments to cover specific items such as heating bills--are far from certain as time passes. Under these conditions, local jurisdictions have come to rely increasingly on extrabudgetary sources, the instability of which makes long-term planning difficult.