Should the US follow the UK to a Universal Credit?

British debates about welfare reform have often been influenced by American ideas. The Clinton-era welfare reforms were echoed in some of Tony Blair’s alterations to British benefits. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, introduced a new Working Tax Credit as a direct result of studying the Earned Income Tax Credit. Brown particularly liked the political advantages of a ‘tax cut for hard-working families’, as opposed to a ‘benefit handout to welfare families’.

But now the transatlantic traffic in ideas on welfare is going the other way. The U.K.’s introduction of a single, unified system of transfer payments – the Universal Credit – is getting quite a bit of attention in the wonkier regions of D.C. politics. Paul Ryan, at a Brookings summit on social mobility, mentioned the Universal Credit (UC) as a possible inspiration for a new round of welfare reform. (Ryan is giving a speech at AEI in a couple of weeks: we’re likely to hear more about his thinking then.) When the architect of the UC, Iain Duncan Smith, visited D.C. recently, he held a series of meetings with leading Republicans to discuss his reforms.

The main attractions of the Universal Credit are fourfold:

  1. Simplicity. By unifying five cash benefits and an ‘in kind’ benefit (Housing Benefit) into a single, monthly payment, the complexity of the system from the point of view of the recipient will be greatly reduced.
  2. Cost control. Housing Benefit is paid directly to the landlord, which reduces the tenant’s incentive to control costs.  Add that to the crazily overheated U.K. housing market, and should come as no surprise that Housing Benefit has become a major strain on the system, quintupling in cost in real terms over the last two decades to hit £24 billion a year (c. $41bn), to become the second-biggest element of the U.K.’s system, after pensions.  By including an allowance for housing in the single cash payment in UC, the recipient will be incentivized to control their own housing costs.
  3. Stronger work incentives. The UC has a flatter ‘taper’ than existing benefits, meaning that cash payments are reduced more slowly as earnings rise. In particular, the UC will allow benefit recipients to work part-time (less than 16 hours a week), and still keep claiming. On the downside, incentives for second earners in two-adult families will be reduced. 
  4. Tighter and more targeted work requirements. The UC will contain stronger requirements to seek work than existing benefits, and importantly, has a ‘sliding scale’ of requirements, depending on the position of the recipient. For example, parents with children under the age of 1 will be exempt from work requirements; those with children aged between  1 and 5 will be obliged to attend for interviews with a case worker to prepare for a return to work; those with children at school will be required to ‘actively seek work’.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And in fact it is, on paper at least. In practice the introduction of UC has been marked with huge overspend and delay on the required new IT system. The whole exercise has also been made much harder by cuts in many of the relevant cash benefits, as well as the introduction of a ‘household cap’ on total welfare receipts. The Universal Credit as an idea has a lot of support. As so often, it has been putting the idea a reality that has been difficult.

What—if anything—can the U.S. take from the UC? Short answer: not much. 

Many of the problems the UC addresses do not really apply in the U.S. Work incentives are already pretty strong in the U.S., thanks to the relative generosity of the EITC, and the relative meanness of out-of-work welfare supports. Also, there are already much stronger work requirements in the U.S. system. Some want to go further, and add work requirements to the receipt of food stamps, for example. But this would not require a major overhaul.  As Melissa Boteach and her colleagues at the Center for American Progress write,“the primary problem that the Universal Credit is supposed to address in the United Kingdom—the lack of incentive for jobless workers to enter the labor force—is far less of an issue in the United States”.

The UC also further centralizes an already highly centralized system, by getting rid of Housing Benefit, which is currently administered by Local Authorities. The U.S. system is much less centralized, with states and cities having a high degree of control over the way TANF and SNAP are administered. It is hard to see how anything like a UC could work in the U.S. at anything higher than State level. A Wisconsin Universal Credit makes sense in a way that a U.S. Universal Credit does not.  But if shifting towards block grants to states is really what this is about (see Marco Rubio’s ‘flex fund’ idea),that’s a whole different debate.

A final point. Simplicity and ease of use for the recipient is a key goal of the UC, and a worthy one. The stress and difficulties faced by low-income families just in applying for assistance is unacceptable in the 21st century. But it is not clear that the whole system has to be upended to achieve this goal. Technology ought to allow a single access point to the system, with the complexity out of sight of the user. 

In the U.K. the Universal Credit has a strong rationale, despite the implementation challenges. In the U.S., it is a solution in search of a problem.