Are universal benefits good policy, or just good politics?by Gavin Kelly / April 16, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
A poster protesting welfare cuts. Image: Byzantine_K
Universal welfare benefits, available to all regardless of income, have long animated the politics of the welfare state. Prime Ministers from Atlee to Cameron have grappled with the universal principle, whereby certain benefits are given to all citizens, even the rich. Universalism goes against the notion that benefits should always target the poor. Defended by some, lambasted by others, the idea of benefits for all has divided opinion within and between parties.
At times, universalism has served the cause of good policy. It underpins the notion that risks are shared by all in society, and lessens the grip of means testing. The high take up means administration costs are low. But it has also generated bad policy in pursuit of good politics—eye-catching ways of shifting resources to key electoral groups, but with little intellectual rationale. As cuts bite deeper, the risk is that bad universalism sticks, while the better version falters.