This was written for a year one Sociology class in University. I've removed the references, because basically most people aren't interested in them, but if you want them I can email to them.
Should Welfare benefits be provided on a universal or selective basis?
Welfare benefits and services are services provided for the fulfillment of the needs of the populace. The question itself is broad, so to answer adequately I interpret it as whether welfare benefits and services provided by the state should be delivered on a universal or selective basis.
There are several methods of welfare provision. There is welfare based on contributions, where the amount one contributes to the market and government in terms of taxes and "usefulness" determines the amount one receives from the government. There is also the view that welfare should only be provided to the most needy, and finally the view that welfare should be provided to an equal level, regardless of actual need.
Selectivity versus universal provision has been contentious for a while now, with constant references to "the benefit culture" in news. The prevailing attitude that causes favouritism of selectivity is the belief that "a society where the state assists people to improve themselves we will never be able to eliminate poverty." . This is widely shared in Britain, where many see the incentives not to work as far greater than the incentives to work.
The case of Nadia Suleman in the US, who recently gave birth to octuplets, having already had six children, intensifies the debate. Claiming benefits for previous children, with which she has had IVF treatment to have more, increasing the burden on the ordinary taxpayer, comes across as ludicrous and unachievable if there was regulation rather than universality of benefits. This is a prime example of "the middle classes being impoverished to finance benefits for (people) who don't really need them".
In this paragraph I will discuss selective benefits based on the amount contributed to society by workers, as is the case in Germany and France.
There is a belief that the welfare state was established to quickly and broadly, which we have struggled to adjust since its founding. Ideally welfare provision exists, but within the bounds of what is possible. Achieving a universal level of welfare is nigh but impossible, so it makes more sense to concentrate on those who need the minimum of state intervention to survive. Welfare is classed as the fulfillment of need. As the middle and upper classes require the least social provision to fulfill their needs, from a capitalist view it makes sense to allow them to prosper. By doing so, the lower classes will shrink, as most will be unable to survive, and the problem will solve itself. This argument is rather unethical, but conforms to the logic of unbalanced growth economic theory.
Fairness is another key issue in welfare provision. Assuming the current system of sliding taxation related to earnings, arguments are that those who pay more taxes are entitled to more than those who do pay less. While strong from a capitalist point of view however, it raises questions over pay itself. Under a contributory system of welfare questions are raised over pay itself. Are public sector workers like cleaners paid too little, and should be entitled to more? Are bankers paid too much? It's far too difficult to quantify. Instead selectivity based purely on the fact that a worker is contributing to the economy is often touted. By working, they are at least attempting to live off their own bat, rather than relying on the state, and this should be applauded.
By promoting the welfare of the economically active, the government minimizes cost, while ensuring that it will be able to adequately maintain its social welfare structure, with a healthy, contented workforce. Benefits are no longer a means of benefiting the poor at the expense of the rich. Instead those who contribute receive returns on their contribution, leading to a greater desire to work, reducing benefit fraud, and ensuring an inherent fairness in the system, so that people realize they are working for their own benefit, rather than for others. The feeling spurring this on is not the government helping the poor, but rather the lack of help for the workers themselves.
By spending less on the poor, the government can instead invest in infrastructure and securing global trade, which improves the overall wealth of a country. Increased trade demands more workers, which gives a wage to the poor, and helps them achieve self sufficiency, while encouraging a work ethic beneficial to the entire of society, in contrast to the belief that the welfare state is "harmful to the moral fibre of the nation". There is a strong argument in favour of selective welfare available to economic contributors in that universal welfare gives no incentive for "self improvement", and is support for an endemic social problem rather than the prevention of it in the first place. Critics argue that this will replace the "can work, won't work" attitude, with nothing to fall back on.
An alternative to selectivity based on economic productivity is welfare allocated on the basis of need. This is an interesting alternative to selectivity based on economic contribution as it is based on humanitarian concepts, which suggests a form of ethical capitalism previously denounced by Marx as impossible, and was instead an attempt to placate the lower classes to stop their uprising. Society has recognized that fulfillment of the lower classes needs are necessary "to survive as an organic whole and to assist the survival of some individuals". The change in attitudes so that it is no longer though of as a means of benefiting the poor at the expense of the rich, and rather as improvement of society as a whole is crucial in the school of needs-based welfare. As welfare for the middle classes moves away from needs and more towards quality of life (Bridgen, P, 2009), there is a recognition that others in society are in need, and that society can afford to help them. Morally, this argument makes the most sense. A society that defines itself as Christian (BBC News)1 needs to pursue such a strategy in order to maintain its faith-based focus and credibility.
Help provided where it was need the most has many benefits. By providing benefits only to the poorest, more money can be spent per person, increasing the potential effectiveness of welfare itself. The system is self-regulating to a point. If any who do not qualify for social welfare fall below the required line for welfare, it becomes provided, quickly pushing them back out of the "need" category. Theoretically the welfare state would eventually be transformed into the middle class state. Outside of welfare, people could rely on the free market and increased choice, safe in the knowledge that the state can support them in crisis.
Needs-based provision avoids a fundamental flaw in contributory-based welfare- that some are physically incapable of work due to disability, illness and other reasons. There has been a growth in public concern and responsibility for states of dependency in society. There are people that require help to survive- this is need provision and therefore welfare in its purest state. It is inarguable.
Universalism gains the benefits of both systems, but also the negatives. While it becomes easy to implement, as there are no criteria to qualify for benefits, it allows easy abuse of the benefits system, fuelling the "can work, wont work" culture. Universal benefits means "people can stop worrying about the basics", but needs based welfare provision provides equality in this sense. By providing welfare for all, the rich can use the state's provisions entirely, regardless of need, saving money otherwise spent on welfare provision in the market. This saving accelerates the gap between the rich and the poor, giving the rich far more purchasing power through their savings in welfare. The poor are having their needs met that would be otherwise unobtainable. The rich are not.
Universal state welfare provision harms the market, starving them of an audience, while the limitless funds provided for welfare by the state are also damaging for the market competitively, who must break even, whereas the state does not. Welfare is a blackhole of public funds that could be better spent elsewhere on those in dire need of help for survival, or could fund tax cuts, helping stimulate the free market that liberal governments are so in love with, particularly in the current recession.
Welfare benefits are a controversial issue. The prevailing attitude in the media today is that welfare benefits are over provided, particularly in the UK, encouraging abuse of the system when given out universally, with no limitations as to who can get them. They appear overprovided, and with for those facing the prospect of jobs on minimum wage, appear a viable alternative to working. This is the deterioration of "moral fibre" so worried about by Pahl that would be caused by benefits.
Selectivity is contentious. Critics argue it ignores endemic white privilege, social structure and disability causing some of these problems, and presents a reductionist view. Proponents of the scheme say it represents a fair result, based on a capitalist mode of thinking that those who don't work are a burden to society. Ethically this is shady.
Needs based welfare provision appears to me to be the best solution. If the initial problem of defining those in need can be overcome it truly can be the system that changes society. Welfare is the fulfillment of need. Self sufficiency is ultimately aimed at in needs based welfare, and can be seen as a stepping stone to better things, rather than the end of the road for welfare claimants. Looking after oneself is achievable to most, and this should be recognised in social policy.