To correct a dire fiscal situation, British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to cut government spending by $134-billion over the next four years. To get there, he's planning to put an end to the universality of some social programs. It's a move with significance beyond Britain's borders.
Last week Mr. Cameron's Conservative government announced major changes to the long-standing Child Benefit. A family with two children currently receives about $2,700 a year from this program. Beginning in 2013, families earning more than $70,000 a year will no longer qualify. "These days we've really got to focus the resources where they are most needed," said George Osborne, Mr. Cameron's Chancellor of the Exchequer. "We've got to be tough but fair."
Bringing Britain back to fiscal balance will require substantial pain spread widely and evenly. Among Mr. Cameron's first announcements when he took power in a coalition government earlier this year were cuts to perks for cabinet. Scrapping the universality of the Child Benefit requires the middle class to chip in as well. And Mr. Osborne also announced this week that welfare families will be limited to total benefits no greater than the income of an average working family, suggesting a further commitment to fairness.
Within the context of these cuts, however, the elimination of social benefits for middle- and upper-income families should be seen as a major transformation of the British welfare system. While it hasn't all gone completely smoothly - confusion over the implication of the Child Benefit changes for one-income versus two-income families led Mr. Cameron to hastily promise some sort of tax break for married couples - rethinking the concept of universality seems both appropriate and necessary. Why provide benefits to people not in need?
Britain may simply be the first of many countries to ask this question. Despite the current enthusiasm for universal full-day kindergarten in Canada, for instance, those scarce resources would be better directed toward low-income families. Federal tax breaks for children's fitness expenses or public transit bear an even-more tenuous connection to need. The dictum of "tough but fair" ought to apply to all government spending, everywhere.