Lee Gregory, Exploring Welfare Debates

Lee Gregory, Exploring Welfare Debates: Key concepts and questions, Policy Press, 2018, x + 272 pp, 1 4473 2656 4, pbk, £17.59

The assumption underlying this textbook is that the discipline of Social Policy is constituted by a set of ideas; and on that foundation Lee Gregory builds a substantial edifice that will provide a secure home for undergraduate students of the subject. To change the metaphor: the road not taken is the division of the subject into policy areas: education, health, social security, employment, housing, and so on: but all of these policy areas appear throughout the book, of course, within discussions of the concepts that underlie the subject as a whole.

Gregory offers chapters on the study of Social Policy; the definition and justifications of welfare; who receives welfare support, and for what; who should provide welfare support; universal provision; selectivity (which ought to have been in a chapter titled ‘Selectivity’, and not in one titled ‘Is universalism sustainable?’); the experience of welfare support; crises of welfare; risk and the welfare state; social policy and social control; and policy analysis. Summary of the material offered would be impossible in a review of this length, and quite rightly so. Gregory does not attempt to minimise the complexity of the subject. What he offers is thorough debate of complex ideas, and thorough discussion of complex debates.

The concept that might be of most interest to readers of this review will be that of ‘universalism’. Gregory studies the mixture of altruism, self-interest, equal needs, citizenship status, and social rights underlying universalistic social policy; he finds that universal provision can help to form the ‘imagined community’ that a nation state requires in order to thrive; he discusses universal provision of education and healthcare in the UK; and he recognises the high cost of universal provision, but also the cost of means-testing, and that progressive tax systems can ensure that those who are able to pay more towards the cost of the service will do so. As Gregory points out, universal provision makes dependency on the state respectable, and is based on the assumption that dependency is respectable: an idea challenged by some of today’s political discourses. As we would expect, Gregory offers an alternative explanation for universal provision: politicians’ wanting the middle classes to benefit from the welfare state, particularly when middle class votes might secure a parliamentary majority.

Gregory notes current challenges to universalism from a variety of directions: from the ‘deserving/undeserving’ distinction; from a recognition that different people have different needs; from fear of welfare dependency; and from a fear that people will become idle – to which Gregory responds with a useful discussion of the sociology and language of work.

One slip: Gregory writes that ‘child benefit in the UK was historically provided to all families with children’ (p. 88). It still is. In 2010, the new Conservative Government told us that Child Benefit would be means-tested for families containing a higher rate taxpayer. It never has been, because there is no way of connecting higher-rate taxpayers to Child Benefit recipients without the kind of bureaucratic intrusion into the intimate details of people’s relationships that is currently reserved for households on means-tested benefits. What happened was a new question on everyone’s tax return asking whether they are in a household that receives Child Benefit – and unfortunately the domestic disharmony to which the tax charge has given risen has resulted in some women withdrawing their Child Benefit claims.

The book’s sections on universalism are followed by material on selectivity in general, on means-testing in particular, and on the administrative complexity to which these give rise; and the following chapter contains a discussion of stigma. An inevitable problem with textbooks is that subject matter has to be divided into chapters. To have been able to bring together these discussions into a comparison of universal and selective benefits would have been both interesting and helpful. Perhaps in a future edition.

This is a book about the concepts and debates underlying the welfare state as it is. Options for reform are not on the agenda, so there is no discussion of Citizen’s Basic Income. The usefulness of this book to that debate is the framework of concepts and debates that it offers. It would be a useful project to employ that framework to evaluate Citizen’s Basic Income. Perhaps the best author to do that would be the one who has constructed the framework.