Why Universalism Trumps Targeting in Social Policy

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.

Poster from a Cuban literacy campaign in Cuba. A 2000
UNICEF report ranked Cuba among the top 10 countries in
achieving widespread access to social services in the
last 50 years. Source: A Week in Cuba 2009
Conversely, a targeted approach to social policy can entrench social disparities and exclusion. By definition, targeting inscribes differences in class, gender and other characteristics in official policy. This not only makes social differences seem natural and permanent, but also divides societies into “givers” and “receivers.” These divisions can lead to stigmatization and discrimination and reduce take-up of benefits, further increasing disparities. Targeting also increases inequality by creating a segmented structure for allocating benefits. Compared to universal programs, where universal access ensures broad support and resource allocation, targeting programs leads to reduced political support and disinvestment. The poor and vulnerable are thus excluded from better-resourced, higher-quality programs serving the rest of society. Tellingly, a review of 122 targeted anti-poverty programs in 48 developing countries found that one-fourth transferred fewer resources to poor individuals than would a universal program.

Targeted policies that link benefits to behavioral conditions contribute to exclusion. They can reinforce unequal societal status (i.e. when conditional cash transfers increase women’s domestic responsibilities). They may also mask unequal access to services: Forcing people to attend schools and clinics does nothing to improve access to or quality of education and healthcare. The poorest households, who find it most difficult to access services, are at greatest risk of losing benefits when they cannot meet requirements. Perhaps more importantly, conditional polices reduce autonomy by forcing recipients to act according to imposed criteria rather than personal choice and aspirations. Improving the supply and quality of social services universally would be a more equitable and inclusive approach.

Policies that employ targeting also risk excluding the most vulnerable members of society from accessing social benefits. It is difficult to accurately identify needy households because measures of poverty are flawed and inconsistent. The poorest households may also lack information or leverage to demand their benefits from authorities. Targeted policies also risk excluding the growing informal sector, which already faces higher risks and lower social protection, as those who work informally may find it difficult to meet or prove eligibility requirements.

Finally, targeting undermines inclusion by reinforcing uneven power relations. The process of determining eligibility for benefits affords some individuals the power to categorize others and determine their access to vital goods and services. This increases subordination of beneficiaries to the power of traditional elites, patronage networks and bureaucratic systems.

Within a universalistic policy framework, selectivity can enhance inclusion by offering supplementary benefits to disadvantaged groups. In New Zealand, for example, services tailored to the indigenous Mãori population have complemented inclusive policies. Programs such as Mãori immersion education and community-based healthcare provision have made mainstream programs more responsive to local needs, facilitated empowerment of a historically excluded group, and increased inclusion through recognition of Mãori culture.

In this Mãori health clinic in South Auckland, New Zealand, traditional Mãori therapies supplement clinical health services. Source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

If the goal is to promote an inclusive society, a shift from targeting back to universalism in social policy would be welcome. But selectivity can be used to make universalistic policy frameworks more inclusive by providing additional benefits to disadvantaged groups.

+ share


  1. Great article! Coming from literature, where universalism is a dirty word (implying the imposition of normative, mainstream, Western values), it's enlightening to see another definition of the word. Great argument and examples

  2. Thanks, Rene! It has been used/seen that way in the past, which is why supplementary measures making sure "universal" programs work for disadvantaged groups are important. But the main proponents of targeting come from a point of view of "efficiency" rather than concerns about equality and exclusion, and in the end, many "programs for the poor end up being poor programs." I forget who said that but it's true!