Thursday, October 07, 2010

On universality

I've posted earlier about a couple of the considerations which seem to me to justify plans like the NDP's home heating proposal. But as promised, let's take a more general look at the comparative political effects of programs designed to be universal as opposed to those which fit a "give money to poor people" model. And let's keep in mind that to the extent we're considering a particular outcome to be a positive, there's surely value in designing a program more likely to make that outcome sustainable past the next political turn.

To start off with an obvious foundational difference between the two types of programs, one of the most problematic elements of targetted programming isn't a concern at all in universal policies. Simply put, any program targeted toward helping the poor requires defining "poor people" in the first place in order to determine who's eligible. And that's not as easy a task as it might seem.

After all, there are plenty of different definitions of poverty which can be applied at any given time - ranging from the corporate think tanks' usual blather that anybody within two days' drive of indoor plumbing should be grateful they're not living in the wild, to the more generous definitions based on baskets of goods or percentages of median income. And the use of any one measure within a policy is bound to create both debate at the outset, and an opportunity for future controversy as to how the program might be changed or cut.

In contrast, a universal program is rather simple: much as the Cons and their allies try to dehumanize some portion of the population, "everybody" is a rather difficult concept to define downward.

While that distinction is important at the outset, it becomes doubly so once a definition is chosen and a program put in place. To see why, let's consider what type of coalition of voters is likely to come together to scrap a program and eliminate whatever good it accomplishes.

Without a doubt, there's some portion of the population which will argue against anything carrying even a hint of redistributive effect (whether based on ideology, or the possession of enough wealth not to need social goods). On its own, though, this group doesn't tend to be able to dictate much policy.

But with any definition of "poor people" entitled to benefits comes the converse: "not poor people", who see a program put in place which offers help to their peers who may not be that far away from them in income or wealth, but which doesn't provide even nominal assistance to them personally. It might make sense in theory to declare that somebody making $19,000 is poor and entitled to assistance while somebody making $21,000 isn't - but the latter person is bound to be at least potentially resentful of being excluded. Which creates an obvious opening for those who barely fall into the "not poor people" category to be drawn in by the anti-taxers in wanting to kill the program.

And for any remotely realistic definition of poverty, the line will be drawn below the median income - meaning that assuming a bell curve distribution of income, there will be more people falling just short of entitlement to benefits than there are just barely receiving them, with the disparity in numbers only rising from there.

But wait, there's more! With a system that creates dividing lines, one also has to create some sort of bureaucracy to enforce the lines. At best, one can try to run a program based on only a slight increase in work for existing tax administration structures - but inevitably there's going to be some increased cost involved. And with that bureaucratic decision-making comes the certainty of controversy over the decisions made - creating the conditions for those who face the unfavourable decisions, as well as those who tend toward distrust of government generally and are responsive to the particular example, to join the coalition which sees the program as unfair. And that's where "Common Sense Revolutions" come from.

Now, it's difficult to measure exactly what effect these considerations should have on any particular program. But I don't think it's much of a coincidence that the most popular and durable social programs have been the ones which make benefits available to all.

Keep in mind that cuts and restrictions to welfare programs targeted at the poor have passed with little resistance all over North America - but even a concerted effort by a party which controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress couldn't put a dent in Social Security. And at home, a universal health care system has become one of our main points of national pride, while other social programs which haven't made it past the piecemeal stage have been cut at all levels of government.

So let's get back to the original point. If a party wants to develop a plan to deal with any issue - and here we can include poverty - is it best off designing a program which looks optimal to economists in targeting the problem to be addressed, but which will sow the seeds of its own demise by creating natural opposed constituencies? Or should a party instead look at how to produce the best results possible within a structure that has a reasonable chance of surviving past the next turn in ideology?

I won't say that there are absolute answers to those questions. But for the most part, if a party thinks that a priority is worth addressing today, it should also care whether or not that priority will still be addressed in the future. And so it's essential to build in some consideration of the probability that a particular program structure will be politically sustainable.

What implications does that have for policy development? Obviously, it will tend to favour the universal over the piecemeal, and either equal benefits or smoothed ones rather than arbitrary ones so as not to create radically different results on opposite sides of a particular line. But that doesn't mean that a program can't be targeted in the sense of giving greater benefits to those who need them most.

And that's where there's some room for criticism of the NDP's home heating policy. There's no dispute that while heating costs form a much higher percentage of the budget of lower-income homes, they're higher in absolute terms for wealthier Canadians. So in theory it might be possible to do more to balance the goal of dealing with actual heating costs with a desire to target aid toward those who need it most - though the complication in administering such a scheme might well not be worth the trouble.

But in designing any policy proposal, it's still well worth the effort to consider the prospect of public buy-in based on widely distributed benefits as well as the risk of creating resentments which might lead to its demise. And I'd argue that the people missing the point of our political system are those who want to wave away such concerns in the name of model-based policy.

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