Case for universal social provision

The principle of universalism underlying the welfare state would be abandoned at society's peril, warns a new think-tank report. The authors reject a 'growing acceptance' that selective rather than universal coverage will help to protect the future of public welfare provision.

Key points

  • Moving from universalism to selectivity increases social and economic inequality and diminishes rather than enhances the status of those in poverty.
  • Selectivity requires processes and procedures that separate benefit recipients from the rest of society, increasing stigmatisation and reducing take-up.
  • Universalism is 'incredibly efficient' – the selective element of pension entitlement is more than 50 times more inefficient than the universal element measured in terms of fraud and error alone, without even taking into account administration costs.
  • Universalism creates a higher and more progressive tax base that also improves economic stability, reduces price bubbles and creates a more efficient flatter income distribution.
  • Systems in which benefits are not targeted towards low-income groups are the ones that most benefit those groups – the so-called 'paradox of redistribution'.
  • Wherever there has been a move from universalism to selectivity, the result has been privatisation and corporate profiteering, often at the expense of those least able to bear the impact.
  • On virtually every possible measure of social and economic success, all league tables are topped by societies with strong universal welfare states.
  • The weight of evidence strongly suggests that the appropriate response to austerity is to increase universal provision – thereby stimulating economic activity, equalising damaging wealth disparity, and improving both government and wider economic efficiency.

Source: Mike Danson, Paul Spicker, Robin McAlpine and Willie Sullivan, The Case for Universalism: Assessing the Evidence, Centre for Labour and Social Studies
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