Socialist Worker

Does means testing help the poorest?

Issue No. 2304

Imagine free school meals for all  (Pic: USDA)

Imagine free school meals for all (Pic: USDA)

Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith says that only the poorest should get state funding for care in their old age. The idea is linked to government reforms to introducing means testing for certain benefits, which means people have to prove their poverty before they can claim them.

This can seem like common sense. Why should the rich get money from the state when they can easily manage without it? Shouldn’t resources be used to help the poorest?

The problem is that means testing benefits doesn’t hurt the rich—it hurts the poor.

People are less likely to claim means tested benefits than those that are universally available.

One charity recently found more than two thirds of poor people in Scotland were not claiming any means tested benefits that they could be eligible for. And the charity Age UK has shown that impoverished pensioners miss out on billions in unclaimed benefits every year.


For all the talk of benefits “bankrupting” Britain, in reality billions of pounds’ worth of benefits aren’t claimed. Partly it’s because people have to jump through so many hoops to prove they’re eligible. And there’s confusion over who is “entitled” to them.

But there’s an ideological reason why many don’t claim—the stigma attached to benefits.

The notion of “deserving and undeserving poor” pushed every day in the mainstream press says receiving benefits is some indicator of personal failure. This is an affront to working class people’s dignity, and why so many don’t claim means-tested benefits.

Yet 99 percent of those eligible for child benefit claim it. There’s no internalised shame attached—it’s provided to everyone. But there’s an awful stigma associated with receiving free school meals. Through means testing people are marked out as being poor, which the government insists is our own fault and something to be ashamed of.

Imagine if the government provided a free meal for every child. Any stigma would evaporate and the service would become something everyone expected to receive.

Means testing leaves those desperately in need of benefits going without. If the idea that some people “deserve” benefits while others don’t is accepted, it will open the door to further attacks.

Cuts to universal benefits rely on the myth that there’s a limited pot of money to go around. But the welfare state was created in the aftermath of a devastating world war. It was affordable then, it’s more than affordable now.


The welfare state was supposed to support everyone “from cradle to grave”. The ruling class are trying to redefine this. They talk of the welfare state as a last resort, a “safety net” only for those in dire need. They refer disparagingly to “handouts”.

Welfare isn’t a “handout”. It’s a way of saying that people have a right to expect a certain standard of living. The Tories want to do away with that right.

Their real agenda in pushing means testing isn’t to get tough on the rich. If it was, they would scrap the real benefits that the rich enjoy, such as the tax loopholes or bonuses.

The Tories’ real aim is to demolish the welfare state and drive down living standards across the working class.

Universal benefits were a massive gain for our side. We should fight to defend them.

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Tue 22 May 2012, 17:25 BST
Issue No. 2304
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