- Abi Wilkinson writes about the importance of making social benefits universal in order to reflect a sense of shared interests and purpose:
Universal aspects of the welfare state tend to be thought of as the fruit of common endeavour. The NHS tops the list of things that make people in this country proud to be British, ahead of the royal family and armed forces. The suggestion that some patients should be charged for hospital visits is likely to make most shudder. Such a reform is widely understood as contrary to everything the NHS is about. Once you’ve introduced a universal provision, it is politically difficult to remove it. Voters are fiercely protective of the entitlements that come to be understood as basic rights.- Meanwhile, Henry Mintzberg comments on the dangers of trying to run government like a business.
Means-tested benefits, on the other hand, are seen more as a form of charity. As such, it’s frequently argued that they should go only to the “deserving poor”. The specific definition of “deserving” is a subject of constant public debate. Those further towards the left of the political spectrum are more likely to argue that income level is the only relevant factor. Those on the right tend to see welfare as a tool to control the behaviour of recipients and often insist on additional moral tests. This is the logic that drives the benefit sanctions regime, and the recent cut to child tax credits for families with more than two children.
It’s true that money spent on middle-class kids’ dinners could theoretically be directed at poorer pupils in more targeted ways, but that misses the point. Maximising cost-effectiveness isn’t what universality is about. Children who receive free school meals report being bullied and stigmatised, and many families who are entitled to claim them avoid doing so for this reason. Others earn just above the £16,190 income threshold but still struggle with the cost of food. Families with an income below the threshold are excluded if a parent works more than 16 hours per week. In some cases, children go hungry not for financial reasons but because of parental neglect. Providing a hot meal to every child ensures that nobody falls through the net.
There’s a solid, practical argument for Labour’s proposal, but focusing only on direct outcomes fails to capture the true challenge facing the party. The welfare reforms introduced under New Labour were largely means-tested. For this reason, the Conservatives have found it easy to roll back much of the progress that was made. The most resilient aspects of our welfare state are the universal provisions which were introduced decades ago.
Of course the problems with our education system won’t be solved with a single policy, but this could represent a symbolic turning point. Expanding universal provisions could be at the centre of a genuinely exciting vision for the future of the country. More radical options, such as a universal basic income, have also been discussed, but there are all kinds of possibilities. To convince disillusioned voters it has something to offer, Labour needs to be brave and think big. Fiddling with numbers on a spreadsheet won’t cut it.
- Jordon Cooper discusses how important public institutions and vulnerable people are bearing the brunt of Brad Wall's cutbacks, even as corporations are handed goodies with no prospect of any public benefit. And Murray Mandryk highlights how this year's extreme austerity budget has made clear that the Saskatchewan Party's supposed concern for people with disabilities has proven illusory.
- CBC reports on new research showing the strong effect of rent subsidies on the well-being of lower-income citizens of Waterloo. But Shawn Jeffords notes that the Ontario Libs and Cons shot down an NDP attempt to ensure that rent is more affordable.
- Finally, Adnan Al-Daini writes that even the dirtiest government Donald Trump can think to administer won't stop the spread of clean energy around the globe. And on that front, Natasha Geiling reports on the imminent end of new coal power in Europe.