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«Introduction Universalism is a concept widely used in social policy and welfare state literature. By universalism a reference is often made to ...»

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Universalism: and idea and principle in social policy

Anneli Anttonen & Jorma Sipilä


Universalism is a concept widely used in social policy and welfare state literature. By

universalism a reference is often made to certain kind of redistribution of resources in a

society. Even if many scientific analyses around universalism have been made, researchers

have not arrived at any broadly accepted definition or conclusion over the concept; and therefore commentators understand the concept of universalism in different ways. Such confusion complicates assessments concerning universalism. It is difficult to discuss the importance or the consequences of universalism if we do not have any widely shared idea what it means. Yet, our point of departure is that universalism is a central concept in social policy research.

Our aim is to clarify what universalism means, how the concept is used within social policy research and what makes a regime or a benefit universal. Besides conceptual analysis we are interested in universalism as a social policy principle. Thus, it will be approached both as an idea or ideal and as an administrative social policy principle (or logics or rationale) affecting the distribution of social benefits (cash benefits or services in kind). We also want to know what is the future of universalism and universal social policies? To answer these questions we have to start by carefully analyzing the ways the concept of universalism has been used in social research.1 We would like to stress that universalism is a context-bound concept that means different things in different times and places and in connection to different benefits. However, in spite of this contextual variety the concept also retains its essential core by always referring to something that is common to “all people”. Basically the concept of universalism is used to make a major distinction to other kind of social policy ideas and principles, most often to those of residualism, marginalism, selectivity, and particularism. Often the concept of universalism has been needed to serve a political aim, which obviously gives the concept a particular flavour.

To better understand the different dimensions and meanings attached to universalism we have to pay attention also to other foundational ideas and distributive logics. Sometimes it would easier to say what universalism is not than what it is about. It is also important to We recognise the importance of universal utilities (roads, water pipes) and public services (physical protection of human beings and the environment) but do not discuss them. To avoid overstraining the readers and us we also skip the question of financing the social expenditure.

remind that in the comparative welfare state research, especially during the post-war decades, the concept of ‘institutional’ was widely used in quite a similar meaning as universal. Thus, there are some parallel concepts one could use instead of universalism, such as institutionalism or generalism. However, there seems to a fairly strong consensus over the fact that universalism has been a core value and leading principle behind social policy reforms in the Nordic countries. By extending social insurance to cover the whole population instead of compensating only the wage earners for lost income Nordic countries attempted to break loose from the stigmatising poor relief tradition and dispersed insurance funds, and by establishing universal access to basic welfare services these countries further promoted equality and solidarity between classes and especially between women and men ( see Kildal & Kuhnle 2005).

A number of researchers have noted that the role of universalism has been declining rather than increasing, mainly because of economic and political reasons (Clayton & Pontusson 1998; Cox 1998; Langan 1998; Kemshall 2002; Timonen 2003; Mkandawire 2005, 2).2 Some researchers, particularly in the Nordic countries, tend to think that the weakening of universalism is a major loss for citizens and for the overall rationality of social policy systems (Sunesson et al. 1998; Rothstein 2001). Some others, however, seem to think that we should not yearn for the golden years of universalism.

It was in the beginning of the 1990s when Williams wrote that “the fragmentation of class politics and the development of identity politics implies that demands upon welfare provision will be about meeting the specific needs of particular groups, rather than about pressing for universal provision to cover the need of all” (Williams 1992, 206). She also raised into discussion the notion of ‘false universalism’. By the concept Williams pointed out that the post-war welfare state in Britain was based primarily on the interests of male workers and breadwinners (Williams 1997, 13). Feminist scholars, in particular, have raised critical questions and argued that universalism was a significant principle when traditional class societies had to be dissolved. However, the increasing importance of dual breadwinner model, single parenthood, multiculturalism and cultural diversity among other things challenge the grand idea of universalism (Williams 1992; Pratt 1997; O’Connor, Orloff & Shaver 1999).

Universalism is a contested concept and principle. There are scholars who give a strong support to universalism and those who tend to think that there are a number of problems not only with the language of universalism but also with universal social policies that is not sensitive enough to cultural and social diversity typical to late modern societies. It is however difficult to agree or disagree with the different views presented above, because we should first arrive at a proper definition of universalism.

Some findings question the conviction that universalism programs are declining everywhere (Bergh, 2004, 762).

Most concepts used within social theory tend to be tricky because of their multidimensionality. This is much the case also with universalism. It is a deeply normative concept and principle that arouses political and ideological emotions, which do not facilitate the search for common meanings. As mentioned, even today scientists do not agree whether certain social policies or benefits should be called universal or not. Chiefly, this is a consequence of the fact that the word “universal” has been used in different frames of reference (Kildal & Kuhnle 2002, 14), in different times, and for different purposes. In addition, universalism is a theoretical and political struggle concept that is closely linked to visions of good society.

In this article we will examine universalism from four different viewpoints:

- universalism as the interest of the state

- universalism as policies aiming for economic equality and national integration

- universalism characterizing a welfare regime

- universalism as a feature of social benefits.

In the end we appraise the state of universalism as a principle of social policy regarding these discourses and present drivers of change. Our article approaches universalism from a broad perspective so that different dimensions, debates and contradictions are taken into account.

Break through of universalism: post-war welfare state in Britain

Improvements in the position of the working class softened tensions between the social classes and increased the possibility to develop new social policy arrangements. There was more of political space, particularly during and after shattering wars, to create integrating political compromises, which on their part further reduced tensions between the classes. In social policy literature the Swedish national pension system (1914) is most often presented as the first social policy program that covered all the citizens. The main motive of the reform was however to rationalize poor relief (Edebalk 1996, 69-82). The reform did not represent any radical turn in the history of universal social policies and citizenship [more about this].

Immediately after the First World War some researchers suggested that the idea of social policy should be thoroughly reformed. Authors like Thörnberg in Sweden, von Wiese in Germany, and Pesonen in Finland, suggested that any citizen could be the object for social policy. This view became dominant after the Second World War (Nieminen 1955, 60-73) as Britain developed both a new political argumentation (language of universalism) and new kind of social policies (universal benefits).

At the time of beginning of the Second World War there were strong calls for social justice, for the abolition of privileges and for a more equitable distribution of income and wealth (Titmuss 1958, 82). They were followed by the famous Beveridge Report (1942) that presented the idea of reconstructing a new social order, a ‘welfare state’ or a ‘social service state’, by providing minimum benefits to all elderly, unemployed, mothers and ill. According to the report all citizens would contribute to the social insurance system if they could and all citizens would be entitled to necessities: health, knowledge, food and shelter. Justice would also be done to non-working housewives. Equal opportunities of access would mean a great progress compared to the pre-war society in which families and voluntary organisations were incompetent to eradicate Beveridge’s five giants: disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness and want (Beveridge 1942, 6-15).

Beveridge spoke strongly for the universal distribution of social services, since all ran the risk of unforeseen poverty the provision should be universal. These lines of thinking lead Beveridge to support both flat-rate contributions and flat-rate benefits. He also believed that national minimum was attainable: ‘... sufficient without further resources to provide the minimum income needed for subsitence in all normal cases’ (Beveridge 1942, 121-122). In fact, this goal became easier to achieve because the unemployment disappeared during and after the war (Thane 1982, 246-249).

According to Titmuss it was the war that gave an impetus to the revolution in social welfare thinking. In this spirit he describes, for instance, the change of attitudes of parents towards milk-in-school schemes. In place of a relief measure, tainted with the poor law, it became a social service (Titmuss 1950, 509-511). Thane (1982, 263-267), however, is more cautious with explaining the change by the war. There were similar initiatives before the war and the opposition to the reforms did not vanish because of the war. According to her interpretation the main reasons for the impressive acts during and after the war were the wartime pressure on health care, the lack of unemployment, the desire to avoid wage increases, and finally the fact that Labour in 1945 for the first time formed a government with large majority (Thane 1982, 229-230, 263-267).

“One fundamental historical reason for the adoption of this principle [universalism – AA and JS] was the aim of making services available and accessible to the whole population in such ways as would not involve users in any humiliating loss of status, dignity or self-respect. There should be no sense of inferiority, pauperism, shame or stigma in the use of a publicly provided service” (Titmuss 1976??, 129).

“If these services were not provided by everybody for everybody they would either not be available at all, or only for those who could afford them, and for others on such terms as would involve the infliction of a sense of inferiority or stigma” (Titmuss 1968, 129).

The universal character of the British acts that were stipulated in the 1940s has been abundantly analysed later on. Langan, for instance, assesses that the boldest claim of the postwar welfare state was that its services were universal. All welfare services were available free at point of delivery to everyone according to their need. There would be common standards in the provision for universal needs, without the historic restriction of the market system on access to goods and services – the capacity to pay (Langan 1998, 8-10). Access to, and experience of, health care, education, income maintenance, housing and so on was seen to be so important in determining the nature and quality of everyone’s life experiences that allocation cannot be left to command over resources in markets (Pratt 1997, 201).

Concurrently, by the new principle of universalism adopted in the post-war social policies in Britain a new emphasis was given to the idea of social citizenship; a focal aim for the welfare state was the desire to promote a sense of belonging and good order in society. The other side of the coin was that promoting universalism and equal citizenship within social services, in particular, was not possible without paternalism: needs had to be defined and unified (Langan 1998, 10). The criterion of need as the basis of resource allocation would be a range of relatively objective criteria (Pratt 1997, 198). The measurement of needs may be simple in primary education, but in case of health care such measurements cannot be made but by professionals. The necessity to give professionals the authority to control the demand of free services was a problem that did not vanish during the decades to come. Thus, according to Langan (1988) universalism has increased professional power and brought into being new kind of paternalism.

There are also other problems identified fairly earlier on with universalism. Beveridge noticed that the universal public goods could not cover all the needs. There would be a new program called National Assistance for means-tested benefits. However, Beveridge and the government anticipated that such benefits would become of marginal importance in a fullemployment labour market (Langan 1998, 10). It was thought that safety net of selective benefits would shrink during an age of planned social improvement (Kemshall 2002, 27-28).

In this respect, universalism was an ideal or utopia towards social policy arrangements were to be developed.

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