The distributional implications of universality (again)

Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, has an article in the Times (also available on the IFS website without a paywall) about how different ideas about fairness are behind some of our political disagreements. There’s plenty to agree with in the piece. But when he touches on a couple of themes that regular readers of the Policy Sketchbook will be somewhere between familiar with and bored of – social care reform and redistribution – Paul says some things that I think are a bit misleading.

Here are the offending paragraphs:

“The Conservatives got into dreadful trouble over their manifesto proposals on social care funding. We have spent decades making no progress on how to reform the funding system, partly because of the way we think about fairness. Some think it unfair that anyone should have to use their own assets, including their house, to pay for care. Yet one of the reasons why proposals to cap the amount that anyone has to pay have not been implemented is because, compared with the system we have today, the winners would be the relatively well-off.

In fact, this is a fundamental disagreement about the role of the state as much as it is about fairness. If you think the state is there to provide a degree of social insurance, stepping in where private insurance markets don’t work to pay for those who are unlucky enough to need care, then you are likely to favour it paying all the costs above a certain level. That’s how we tend to think of the NHS. But if you think the state is there just to redistribute money from rich to poor then you might think it unfair.”

This is a familiar take: moving to universal benefits means less redistribution and benefits the well-off. But is it true? Well, that depends. The most important thing to remember when thinking about the distributional impact of changes in government spending is that the money doesn’t just appear out of thin air. The effect of a policy on the level of redistribution that government does depends on how it is paid for. By choosing different funding sources you can get pretty much any distributional effect you want, but some scenarios are more relevant and plausible than others.

Three different ways of paying for a universal benefit

So let’s take a look at the distributional consequences of moving from a means-tested benefit to a universal one, paid for in different ways. We’ll use a stylised example for clarity, but the conclusions generalise pretty well. Imagine we have a benefit worth £1000 per person, but means-tested so that only the bottom 30% of the income distribution get it. An independent commission recommends making this universal, so that everyone gets the benefit regardless of their income. There are broadly three ways we can pay for this and each has different distributional consequences.

Reducing means-tested benefits to pay for universal benefits is regressive

One way to pay for the new universal benefit would be to reprioritise some money that is currently spent on means-tested benefits. It’s trivial to see that this is going to be regressive, but let’s run the numbers anyway. Let’s say we take the money that is currently spent on our stylised means-tested benefit and use it to fund a universal version. Instead of the bottom 30% of the income distribution getting a benefit worth £1000, everyone now gets one worth £300. The bottom 30% lose £700 each and everyone else gains £300. This is nailed-on regressive and it would be a similar story if the money were reprioritised from some other area of means-tested spending.

Means-testing one universal benefit to pay for another is distributionally neutral

Another way of paying for the new universal benefit is to reduce universality in another area. This is the sort of thing that was discussed in the wake of the Dilnot Report: universal coverage for social care could be funded by means-testing some of the universal benefits that older people currently get, like winter fuel allowance or free bus passes. The distributional consequences of the switch would depend on the details, but it would be roughly neutral – we are taking money away from the same people who will get more from the new benefit.

Paying for a universal benefit through higher taxes hits the rich

The third way that we could pay for the new universal benefit is through higher taxes. We can design taxes with various distributional profiles, but we can get an idea of who would be hit by a “typical” tax rise if we look at the distribution of current UK taxes as a whole.

The chart below (based on ONS data) shows the distributional impact of extending our £1000 benefit to the whole population and funding it through an increase in “general taxation” – by which we mean a tax rise with the same distributional profile as the current UK tax system. The (positive) green bars show the additional benefits people in each income decile get and the (negative) red bars show the additional taxes they pay. The red and green bars sum to zero because, at risk of labouring the point, the money has not appeared out of thin air.

The winners from this shift to universal benefits are not the poorest, who already got the benefit, but it would be misleading to say they are the “relatively well-off”. The winners are the people in the middle, especially those just above the current means-test threshold. The biggest losers by far (in cash terms) are the richest 10%. This is a key point: the main distributional effect of a tax-funded change from means-tested to universal benefits is to move money from the people at the top of the income distribution to the people in the middle.

But you may have noticed something else in the chart. The bottom 30% of the income distribution also lose out, because they pay more tax and don’t get any additional benefit. They don’t pay much in absolute terms, but relative to their income it’s quite a lot. The chart below shows the same figures as a proportion of income: the richest still pay the most on this measure, but now the poorest are not far behind.

Now, unless you think that the bottom 30% do rather too well out of government as things stand, this doesn’t seem particularly fair. Luckily, it’s cheap to fix, since the bottom 30% only pays 7% of the cost of this policy if the money is raised through general taxation. If we were to exempt them from these tax rises, we’d still have enough to fund a universal benefit worth £970 for the rest of the population. But the point is worth noting: if universal benefits are to be funded through tax rises, the additional taxes shouldn’t hit the poorest.

The size of the state

So we’ve seen three different ways of paying for a new universal benefit with three different distributional effects: regressive, neutral and progressive. It should be obvious by now that unless you are clear which one of these you think will happen, you shouldn’t be saying anything about the distributional consequences.

How we assume the additional spending will be balanced rather depends on our assumptions about the size of the state. If we believe that tax rises are impossible or highly undesirable, then we are going to want a new universal benefit to be paid for by reprioritising spending. Up to a point we can reprioritise from other universal benefits and get something distributionally neutral – but so much of the British state is already means-tested that (unless you are willing to go for pensions or the NHS) there is limited capacity for such reprioritisation. With a fixed public spending envelope and tax profile there is only so much universality you can afford if you also want to do a certain amount of redistribution and under these assumptions, Paul’s claim that “the winners would be the relatively well-off” is just about defensible – although for a small spending item like the Dilnot reforms it would be quite easy to reprioritise spending in a neutral or progressive way.

But if we assume that more universal benefits will mean higher taxes then the picture looks very different. As shown above, the biggest losers from this would be the richest and the winners would be the people in the middle. And there are a couple of reasons to believe that this is ultimately the more reasonable assumption.

The first is that the people who are in favour of universal benefits tend to be the people who are in favour of higher taxes. Elect a government that does one, they are likely to do the other. We can see this in the recent Labour manifesto, where universal free university tuition was proposed, funded by an increase in income tax. Although the Dilnot Commission didn’t say much about how its proposals should be funded, the previous abortive attempt at social care reform (Labour’s National Care Service) was to be funded by an increase in inheritance tax.

The second is that countries with more universal benefits tend to have higher tax rates. There’s more going on in these figures than just universality versus means-testing, but in general the countries with the most universal benefits, such as the Nordics, France and Belgium, raise the most in taxes. Internationally, means-testing goes with low taxes and universality goes with high taxes.

Some conclusions

To be fair to Paul, he is far from the only person to go around saying that universal benefits are regressive. It’s even true under certain assumptions – specifically that the UK must remain a low tax country. The problem is that no one who writes opinion pieces saying that universal benefits are regressive ever seems to find space to clarify that this is their assumption. If they did, readers would probably notice that this isn’t what the proponents of universality are usually proposing, and it isn’t what countries with more universal benefits do. Moving towards a European model with more universal benefits and higher taxes would most likely amount to a transfer from the rich to the people in the middle of the income distribution. I doubt that fans of redistribution would, as Paul suggests, think this is unfair.

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One thought on “The distributional implications of universality (again)

  1. Pingback: Is the Labour manifesto ‘regressive’, and how? |

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