The Universal Fallacy
October 5, 2010
I honestly don’t understand the argument being put forward in Labour circles that the curtailment of child benefit at the upper tax band will cause the welfare state itself to fall into disregard amongst the middle classes. It’s not a universal benefit. You only get it if you have kids. In the same way, you only get Jobseekers’ Allowance if you’re out of work. The distinction is between universal (everyone gets it regardless of circumstance) and conditional (you only get a benefit if you meet certain conditions).
What’s important is the principle that the welfare state is always there to provide a safety net if things go wrong. Child benefit will continue to be paid if you earn below a certain amount, in recognition of the fact that children are costly*. The state should be able to make that economic judgement. What it shouldn’t do – as Polly Toynbee claimed it should do on Newsnight last night – is say that having children is something that is valued. That’s up to the individual, not the state or society.
In general, for those benefits like income support and NHS prescriptions which do have an income-based element public support remains strong. No-one in contemporary British politics wants to scrap the welfare state entirely. What they do want to do – and which I would applaud – is to make sure we can afford it not just for the present generation, but forever.
*The way in which this has been implemented – which uses individual rather than household incomes – is stupid, I agree.