Political Animal

Blog

June 05, 2013 12:11 PM Universal Versus Means-Tested Benefits

By Ed Kilgore

Here’s an interesting straw in the wind across the pond, as reported by BBC’s Nick Robinson:

When this [Tory/LibDem] government decided to cut child benefit from higher and top-rate taxpayers Labour attacked the move as unfair and proving that the government was out of touch with hard-working families.
Now, however, I understand that the party’s leadership has concluded that it will not be able to reverse the cut.
To do so would cost £2.3bn. That is 23 times as much as the money which would be saved by removing winter fuel allowance from wealthier pensioners - the policy unveiled by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls earlier this week.
Some critics are likely to see this as more evidence that Labour has abandoned its support for so-called universal benefits - those benefits paid to all regardless of income. One source told me “we have other priorities”.

The debate over making key social benefits (particularly retirement and health care) universal or means-tested is an ancient one in center-left circles across the globe. We have a mixed system in this country, though the bulk of tax dollars go into the universal Medicare and Social Security programs for retirees (they do have means-testing features that affect benefits and contributions, but only at the margins).

The perpetual use of means-testing proposals (often really just benefit cuts disguised as “fairness” initiatives) by conservatives in their efforts to shred the social safety net has given the very idea an unsavory aroma in U.S. progressive circles; it’s hard to imagine a major Democratic politician advocating the sort of global means-testing principles Bruce Babbitt championed in the 1980s.

But the commitment to universal social benefits has come with a certain price: the resources inevitably diverted from people who need them to people that don’t, most obviously, but also the occasional inversion of the political strategy of universalism that occurs when conservatives baldly mobilize upper- and middle-class beneficiaries against the po’ folks (demonstrated once again by the GOP’s efforts to convince people on Medicare beneficiaries that their “earned” benefits are being “raided” by those receiving assistance via Medicaid or Obamacare).

Sooner or later, this debate will stage a comeback in U.S. liberal circles, and it should. As Charlie Peters argued back in 1983, any “The More the Merrier” principle of making social benefits universal rests on shaky politics and dubious morals. If nothing else, it doesn’t deserve to be reflexively accepted as though it came down from Mount Sinai—or from the New Deal—on stone tablets.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

(You may use HTML tags for style)

comments powered by Disqus