Monday, October 11, 2010

Universality and the Welfare Safety-Net

To me, it seems a very big leap to say that the coalition is abandoning the welfare state principal of universality, just because it is removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. As Michael White has pointed out the welfare state has always been full of quirks and anomalies. The way some politicians and commentators have reacted, you would have thought that Osborne had announced the introduction of means tested health care.

I'm much more worried that the coalition will do the opposite: that is maintain universal benefits at the expense of the welfare safety-net. Based on my observations since I moved here, I'd say that is exactly what has happened in Canada. Universal benefits such as education, libraries and health care are generally very good. The contribution based state pension is better than the UK's (no surprise there). But, on the other hand, the welfare safety-net fails many thousands of Canadians who need help, who end up on the streets, or dependent on food-banks to feed themselves and their families, and even more live with the stress of being just one or two paychecks away from disaster.

There are good grounds for being concerned that the coalition will prioritise universality over welfare. It is already doing so; not only is the NHS ring-fenced, but less justifiably universal benefits for the elderly are, as yet, only subject to rumours of cutbacks. It is the means tested benefits of last resort which are being reformed, and children in large families on welfare will lose the most through the cap on payments. I see absolutely no justification for this. However galling it is to see large families on benefits getting more than than the median income, the fact is there are very few such families, and the saving for the state is tiny. Since some children will probably end up in care as a result of their family's loss of income, there may even be an overall financial loss.

I don't like living in Canada. I don't like living in a society that has thousands of people sleeping on the streets. I don't like living in a society where thousands of people need help from food banks. I regard that as too high a price to pay for good schools and libraries and free health care. I don't want Britain to become like that, so I'd welcome the slashing of universal benefits, if that will preserve the welfare safety net.

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