Why Universalism Trumps Targeting in Social Policy

How  we provide justice to the disadvantaged – An ongoing situation of too few resources and too many needy. I believe this post and its embodied reports would be well to be read and heeded by our governments and their instruments in South africa as the system of targeting is so embedded in our hand-outs and the sad results of dependency in the face of great need breeds despair.  From [polis]  Posted by Katia Savchuk

These women in Ocotito, Mexico, participated in Oportunidades, a government program that pays women to send children to school. Conditional cash transfers are an example of targeting in social policy. Source: World Bank / Adrian Mealand

In the 1960s and 1970s, a universalistic approach to social policy – under which the entire population is eligible for social benefits as a basic right – prevailed in developed and developing countries. Since the 1980s, however, policymakers have increasingly embraced targeting, which limits eligibility for social benefits to beneficiaries who meet specific criteria. Proponents of targeting claim that it is most efficient to direct scarce resources to those who need or “deserve” them most. The shift away from universalism was conditioned by fiscal deficits, the rise of neo-liberal ideology and shifting priorities for aid.

The choice between universalism and targeting is ideological. If the primary objective of social policy is combating social exclusion, a return to universalism is warranted. Social inclusion involves not only decreasing disparities in material well-being, but also in citizenship, sense of belonging, voice, autonomy and power relations. A universalistic approach promotes inclusive citizenship, equal rights and social solidarity, and has historically been associated with more equitable societies. Targeting, on the other hand can reinforce social disparities, reduce autonomy, exclude vulnerable individuals from accessing benefits and buttress uneven power relations.

Universalistic social policies, by making eligibility for benefits a right of citizenship, define citizens as equal before the state. They also enhance the legitimacy of rights-based claims, which members of society can call upon on equal terms. By placing citizens on equal ground rather than emphasizing difference, universalistic policies can also increase social cohesion and reduce discrimination. Empirically, societies that adopt universalistic policies have had lower levels of social inequality. In a 2000 UNICEF study of developing countries that made the most progress in providing widespread access to social services in the last 50 years, a universal approach to provision was the key commonality.

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