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politics of social protection

November 24, 2011


The BBC broadcasted an interesting documentary yesterday by its political editor Nick Robinson, Your Money and How They Spend It. In this first of two episodes, he discussed what the UK government spends its money on and what informs the decisions in how to do it. One of the examples was on old-age pensions, presenting an interesting illustration of how politics inform the design of a social protection programme and the amount of money spent on it.

The particular type of pension (the winter fuel subsidy) is universal, meaning that everybody over a certain age will receive them, regardless of their income. The amount of this particular subsidy has been steadily increased in the late 90s and early 2000 under Labour government, causing costs to go up (with some arguing to have spiralled out of control). One obvious option would be to make the subsidy means-tested; i.e. to award it only to those that ‘need’ it as they have an income below a certain level. But this is tricky… and no government has shown willing to take this political risk. Pensioners are loyal voters, and organise themselves well. To deny a (large) group of them from a subsidy that they have been receiving for years will have serious consequences in terms of political support. And so it is that despite voices and proposals from both left and right to reform particular welfare policies, the status quo is maintained.

As much as we would like to inform policies with evidence of what works and what doesn’t, this is a strong reminder that social protection policy making is not just a technocratic exercise.

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