Why should less well-off tax payers subsidise the wealthy with benefits and services that are not means-tested, asked right wing commentators as the Tories unveiled their manifesto this week.
The “Compassionate Conservatives” announced they would scrap automatic winter fuel payments to over 12 million pensioners. A new benefit would be introduced to target those most in need, they said.
At the same time Theresa May vowed to end free school meals for all primary school children in their first three years–replacing it with a much cheaper free breakfast for under 11s.
May insists that that everyone poor enough to “deserve” a fuel payment or a free lunch will still get one, if they fill out all the relevant forms and pass the thresholds.
But there is ample research to show that these means-tested benefits miss out many of those most in need.
In the years before the free school lunch policy, four in ten school children that didn’t receive free lunches were classed as being in poverty.
Many parents simply didn’t apply.
Some remember the stigma attached to being on free lunches when they were at school and didn’t want to put their children through that too.
Others were daunted by the long and complex forms that had to be filled out, and feared they would be classified as “cheats” if they were turned down.
Giving all children a free lunch helps end the humiliation of poverty.
That’s why Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to say he would charge VAT on private school fees to pay for every primary school child to have a healthy lunch.
The same is true of Winter Fuel Payments.
Millions of pensioners struggle to keep themselves warm in the colder months. Many won’t turn up their heating even as temperatures drop because they worry about the cost.
The Winter Fuel Payment gives them the security of between £100 and £300 a year they can put by for when the gas and electricity bills arrive.
The Tories know that many old people are frightened of applying for benefits, and that the take up rate of any new allowance will be relatively small.
They also know that the wealthiest pensioners won’t be affected by the change.
Means-testing not only leads to poor people missing out. It also involves a massive bureaucracy that has to be paid for.
Even if the Tories’ changes only result in very small savings to government, they will drive them through regardless.
That is because the real aim isn’t to stop poor people paying for rich people’s benefits–it’s to break the very notion of a welfare state in which everyone is entitled to a decent standard of living.