This day’s portion Navigation Menu

In praise of universality

No, not the Universal, nor universal truths, but universal benefits. In fact, it’d be good to ditch the word benefits altogether, now it’s become irretrievably tainted (Benefits Street, on benefits, et al) and always was somewhat patronising:

Benefit …late Middle English (originally denoting a kind deed or something well done): from Old French bienfet, from Latin benefactum ‘good deed’, from bene facere ‘do good (to)’ Oxford Dictionaries [Note that someone is doing good to someone else]

Universal benefits are painfully unfashionable these days; instead, we talk of “targeting” those “most in need”. You see how easy it is to slip into the language of charity – a world of subjects, objects and the deserving.

But it sounds sensible, no? After all, why should we give money to people who don’t need it? Especially in these austere times. And it may well save money – if that’s the goal, then targeted benefits may be a good thing.

But non–universal benefits cause problems beyond creating a monstrous bureaucracy, or depriving people who do need money through making it difficult to apply. When benefits are universal we remove all notions of us giving money to them. After all, the middle classes are the keenest claimers of child benefit (which is sadly becoming less universal), and no one is made to feel bad about collecting it. Targeted benefits are intrinsically divisive, while universal benefits are cohesive.

Benefit as crime (and punishment)

The problem with giving is that it incurs a deeply moral debt. We can recall a moral debt: perhaps by treating benefit claimants as barely human, or by leaving them to the UKIP.

More practically, we can devise financial punishments: forced ‘voluntary’ work, making recipients search for a job 7 days a week from 9–5 and insane sanctions for minor infractions of impenetrable rules.

The fact we don’t like to call these measures punishments suggests we’re not altogether comfortable with the idea of punishing people for being poor. Perhaps there’s some hope for universality. But honestly, can you see basic income in the UK, or even an end to programmes like Benefits Street?