The way we discuss Universalism in Britain is utterly, utterly stupid.
What is a Universal benefit?
Just as the ‘universal credit’ isn’t anything like universal, the one thing a universal benefit isn’t, is a universal benefit.
Instead, a universal benefit is paid to everyone in a specific family, life or work situation.
Parents get child benefit. Pensioners get a Winter fuel payment. Pensioners over 75 get a free TV license. The unemployed (if they have made two years of NI contributions) get contributory JSA (though only for six months, after which they go onto income based JSA, which isn’t universal). The list goes on.
These benefits are universal in one sense only: They go to everyone who finds themselves is a specific situation of need. It is this which, adherents to Universalism argue, builds support for the Welfare state among net contributors. The supports of universalism say, with some justification, that the reason people who are better off are prepared to support a system that works against their financial interests is that it represent an insurance for them: against getting old, or sick, or losing your job.
To my mind, this is a powerful argument. It also seems to be backed up by correlating data that suggests that systems that offer benefits to every citizen also offer more generous benefits to the poorest. If you think you’ll get, you’re more willing to give.
So, surely we must have a system that offers something to everyone, rich or poor?
Yet some of these benefits seem utterly wasteful. What are wealthy pensioners getting a winter fuel allowance? Why were the cabinet of millionaires also a cabinet getting child benefit?
Surely that money could be better spent elsewhere?
These are the battle lines of universalism. One one side stand the means testers. On the other stand the universalists.
But the answer to both questions is yes.
Yes, we need a system that offers something to everyone. Yes, the current system is wasteful and puts money in the wrong places.
Jim Griffiths, a forgotten hero of the Labour movement
The key is to go back to how these universal benefits were constructed, and the needs they met.
Our lives have changed since Jim Griffiths introduced the modern national insurance system.
The way we live, work, and relate to one another has changed completely since then. In 1948, the expectation was that the great mass of people would live in single income households, would rent their home, would have larger families, would be susceptible to unemployment during times of national depression, and barring that would stay in pretty much the same job until they retired, or were too ill to work, after which they would have a brief period of inactive retirement before death.
It was to address the near universal crisis points in peoples lives under this way of life that the universal welfare state was developed.
Think of the defining phrase of the welfare state “From the Cradle to the grave“. Is the implication of that statement that the state will support you uniformly between those two points? No, it is that at these points, and at others in between, we all need help, who-ever we are, whatever our circumstances.
Yet almost all of these crisis points have changed and evolved since then.
We change careers and jobs more often. More people own homes, so have to meet mortgage payments, Brief, temporary periods of unemployment are more regular, as is the need to change career or to re-train. More women work, so childcare and maternity leave is essential, but family sizes are smaller; so ongoing child support is less crucial. Pensioners live for longer, and more of them have private pension provision, or large assets, which are susceptible to the need to pay for care.
So surely the challenge for Universalism is not simply to defend the existing structure of benefits but to ask how well the current system of universalism meets the needs of all who might need help?
I’d argue it does not do this very well, that the resources of universalism are misdirected, and that we can use these resources to build a better, stronger universalism than that which we have now.
Take the Winter Fuel Allowance. This was introduced in 1997 by Gordon Brown, replacing the old Cold Weather payments, which went only to the poorest pensioners. Originally it was a hybrid – £20 for every pensioner, £50 for those on Income support. (it was paid for, incidentally, by cutting payments to the EU!). So Winter Fuel money was a universal component of a means tested benefit, itself replacing a means tested benefit.
Today, the scheme is targeted by age, rather than income. You get an extra £100 if you’re over 80, because the older you are the more likely you are to die from cold. It has also expanded massively, from a cost of under £200 million to a cost of £2 billion.
Where is the universal need for fuel payment greatest?
My challenge isn’t to the principle of universalism, but to its application as a method of meeting universal need in society. So let’s look at Winter Fuel Allowance in that light.
Is sending £200 to every 60 year old in the country a better use of resources, than, say, increasing the level of Contributions based JSA, or offering every toddler a breakfast club so parents can go to work?
Even if we wished to keep the money withing the “pension” pot and with the same aim of helping those vulnerable to cold weather, then wouldn’t the money be more effective, while still Universal, if it helped those only over 75 at a higher level, so there was absolutely no fear about heating bills among the most vulnerable to excess winter death? (you can see in the chart that excess mortality is concentrated hugely in the over 75 age group, with over half of all excess deaths occurring among the over- 85s).
But instead, a targeted, selective benefit intended to meet a clear universal need (old people feel the cold more than the young) somehow becomes regarded as a universal benefit, and becomes hallowed, and unreformable, and debate about how it is targeted and whether it is the best way of meeting the original need, or even whether that universal need is the right one to be focusing resources on, becomes impossible.
I don’t think this can be maintained. Not on the Winter Fuel Allowance, nor on Child Benefit, on JSA, on pensions.
The danger is that we defend a universal system that no longer addresses the right universal needs, a system that offers too much to those who don’t really need it now, but also offers those same people too little when they really will need a little extra help. By doing so, we try to protect a system that has ceased to be universal and started to just be unwise.
So we give families child benefit, but too little support in years one to five.
We offer contributory JSA, but at a level that is no different to incomes based, while we also offer mortgage support to people on incomes based JSA (though not, oddly to people on contributory JSA only. Not sure why).
Everyone is eligible for housing benefit, but the various supports for those paying mortgages who lose their jobs are complex and unwieldy.
We pay incomes based JSA, but offer almost nothing to people who want to retrain for work, or start their own business, or go freelance, and need a transitional support package to make that work for them.
If we want to defend universalism, we should start, not by defending benefits designed six decades ago, but by better understanding the moments of universal need that our society faces today and designing our welfare state around supporting people through these. We could even start with the Winter Fuel Allowance.
We all still start from the Cradle, and we all still end at the Grave, but the journey we take in between has changed, and universalism needs to change with it.