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The alittleecon blog reminds us “this is part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here. The second unhelpful thing I often hear from people on the left is:

“2. [Insert universal benefit] should only be for people who need it. Helpfully, Zoe Williams provided a good example of this in yesterday’s Guardian in a piece titled “Free school meals should be for those who need them, not those who don’t”. I’m a fan of Zoe Williams, but I don’t agree with this piece. She was writing about the new policy starting from this week that all young primary school kids will be entitled to a free school meal. This is an idea dreamed up by Nick Clegg. Zoe argues that because things for the poorest kids [are] really bad, we should not be spending £1bn on free meals for kids, when many of their parents can afford to pay for their kids meals themselves. She does say that she normally defends universal benefits, but that “…things have become so bad I wouldn’t make a defence for any universal benefit at the moment”.

“So the argument is we should take the £1bn being spent on free school meals and spend it on the poorest kids instead. You can hear similar arguments made about other universal benefits like free bus passes, winter fuel allowance etc. Is this a good argument though? Again, I don’t think it is. Firstly, as with part 1, the argument mirrors that made by those on the opposite side, who want public services to be cut. Old Tories are often popping up to say they don’t need their £250 winter fuel allowance. It may be true that they don’t need it, but their motives for mentioning it are so these things will be means tested, the budget will be slashed and then they think they can ask for lower taxes, or more ‘contributory benefits‘ (code for benefits not available to the ‘undeserving’ who’ll need to rely on charity).

“So let’s remind ourselves why universal benefits are a good thing. Firstly, means test[ing] is complex and costly. It results in people who need the benefit not claiming it because the process of claiming is too complex or intrusive.”

Read the rest of the article here.

So the next time anyone tries to tell you benefits should be restricted to cut the bill, tell them:

1. Means testing is complex and costly.

2. It means people who need the benefit won’t claim it because the process is (intentionally) too difficult for them to manage. Provision for some depends on provision for all.

3. Greater means-testing leads to increased levels of poverty as the value of benefits progressively withers, according to A Fabian Society study. We can see evidence of that in the UK, where the Coalition has linked the removal of child benefit from higher-earners with a cash terms freeze for three years, making a real-terms reduction of £1,080 for a family with two children.

4. We must question the motives of rich people who say they don’t need a particular benefit. They want these things to be means tested so the budget will be slashed – and then they think they can ask for lower taxes, or more ‘contributory benefits‘ (code for benefits not available to the ‘undeserving’ who’ll need to rely on charity).

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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