Beyond Income Redistribution: The Case for Redistributing Public Services

By Bamfield, Louise | Renewal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Beyond Income Redistribution: The Case for Redistributing Public Services


Bamfield, Louise, Renewal


From Sure Start to adult literacy, the importance of public services in improving life chances has been a key focus of Labour policy over the last decade. Despite this, recent debates about the policy and political challenges of tackling poverty and social exclusion have tended to focus on the issue of income transfers through the tax and benefits system. Of course, narrowing the gap in life chances may well require a more explicitly redistributive system of taxation, but it also calls for a redistribution of spending on public services to ensure that resources are most effectively targeted at those with the greatest need.

In order to retain the wide public support that exists for services funded through taxation, it will be important that--in any narrative about the role of public services--the concept of need is balanced alongside other values embodied in the ideal of universal services, such as solidarity, inclusion and equal citizenship. Nevertheless, a compelling case can be made for the principle of 'redistributing' public services-one which accords with the principle of progressive universalism, and with basic values of fairness and equitable treatment. Moving to a more needs-based allocation, however, is likely to be resisted by those who may lose out under such a system unless government and progressives are prepared to make this case with conviction.

In education there are strong arguments in favour of redistributing resources from less deprived to more deprived areas and, within schools, to focus on improving the performance of disadvantaged children relative to their peers. Importantly, however, achieving this kind of shift in schools' priorities depends on the wider policy climate--and the pressures and demands on schools that create constraints on teachers and school managers in practice. Implementing any such approach obviously depends on political commitment, which in turn raises questions about public attitudes towards public spending, and about how to make the case for reconciling the fundamental concept of universality with more targeted provision and additional resources for the most disadvantaged.

Recent changes to public spending and the distribution of the social wage

As with income poverty, the government's overall record on redistributing spending on public services is good (and vastly better than the Conservative administration that preceded it), but there is much more it could do. While public expenditure on public services has increased substantially since Labour came to power in 1997, and especially after 1999, some age groups have benefited more than others. Children (especially younger children) and pensioners have been the main beneficiaries: public spending per child grew by almost 20 per cent in real terms between 1996/97 and 2001/02, and by around 13 per cent for pensioners, compared with an increase of just 2 per cent for working age adults (Sefton, 2004).

As well as redistributing income horizontally, from working age households without children to families with children and pensioners, Labour has also redistributed vertically from higher to lower income groups. Public spending has become more skewed towards low-income families and children under Labour, so that, for example, the difference in average education spending per child between the least and most deprived authorities increased from 16 per cent in 1997/98 to 24 per cent in 2003/04. Overall, estimated spending on children from 'poor' families (those in receipt of income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance) is, on average, twice as great as on children from non-poor families (Sefton, 2004).

Public spending on some public services is more 'pro-poor' than others: the most strongly pro-poor services being those, such as social housing, which are targeted at the least well-off families, while the benefits of universal services, such as health care and education, are more evenly spread (though the bias in higher education is 'pro-rich' rather than 'pro-poor') (Sefton 2002). …

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