This is part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here. The second unhelpful thing I often hear from people on the left is:
2. [Insert universal benefit] should only be for people who need it. Helpfully, Zoe Williams provided a good example of this in yesterday’s Guardian in a piece titled “Free school meals should be for those who need them, not those who don’t”. I’m a fan of Zoe Williams, but I don’t agree with this piece. She was writing about the new policy starting from this week that all young primary school kids will be entitled to a free school meal. This is an idea dreamed up by Nick Clegg. Zoe argues that because things for the poorest kids is really bad, we should not be spending £1bn on free meals for kids, when many of their parents can afford to pay for their kids meals themselves. She does say that she normally defends universal benefits, but that “…things have become so bad I wouldn’t make a defence for any universal benefit at the moment”.
So the argument is we should take the £1bn being spent on free school meals and spend it on the poorest kids instead. You can hear similar arguments made about other universal benefits like free bus passes, winter fuel allowance etc. Is this a good argument though? Again, I don’t think it is. Firstly, as with part 1, the argument mirrors that made by those on the opposite side, who want public services to be cut. Old Tories are often popping up to say they don’t need their £250 winter fuel allowance. It may be true that they don’t need it, but their motives for mentioning it are so these things will be means tested, the budget will be slashed and then they think they can ask for lower taxes, or more ‘contributory benefits‘ (code for benefits not available to the ‘undeserving’ who’ll need to rely on charity).
So let’s remind ourselves why universal benefits are a good thing.Firstly, means test is complex and costly. It results in people who need the benefit not claiming it because the process of claiming is too complex or intrusive. This New Statesman article summarises it well:
“The left most of all, should be wary of abandoning the principle of universalism. History shows that a narrower welfare state soon becomes a shallower one as the politically powerful middle classes lose any stake in the system and the poor are stigmatised as “dependent”. The “paradox of redistribution”, as social scientists call it, is that provision for some depends on provision for all. A Fabian Society study of 11 OECD countries found that greater means-testing led to increased levels of poverty as the value of benefits progressively withered. In the UK, we are already witnessing this phenomenon at work. While removing child benefit from higher-earners (a measure defended by Beveridge’s ostensible heirs, the Liberal Democrats), the coalition has simultaneously frozen it in cash terms for three years, a real-terms reduction of £1,080 for a family with two children. As Richard Titmuss observed more than forty years ago, “services for the poor end up being poor services”. “
So we should defend the principal of universal benefits at all costs from those who want to undermine the whole welfare state. By arguing for their removal, we are doing the right’s job for them. Zoe’s article was titled “Free school meals should be for those who need them, not those who don’t”. If we accept this as a valid argument, why shouldn’t the same logic be applied to health services for example?
But what about the argument that spending money on universal benefits means we can’t afford to target spending at the poorest? This overlaps with the argument I want to discuss in part 3, so I’ll leave that for anther day.