Conservatives have long called for combining and freezing federal funding for key health, nutrition, and income security programs and then handing those funds over to the states. As evidenced by the track record of TANF and several other block grants, this strategy has historically resulted in large cuts to benefits, and made block-granted programs much less responsive to recessions and increases in population and unemployment.
Last year, Representative Paul Ryan proposed the most recent conservative block-grant proposal. Under his Opportunity Grant program, funding for the nation’s bedrock nutrition assistance program (SNAP) and several other means-tested programs would be combined into a single block grant with a fixed annual funding level. Rep. Ryan says he draws inspiration from the United Kingdom’s Universal Credit—a new means-tested cash entitlement benefit that consolidates six current benefits, including the Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and Job Search Allowance. The Universal Credit has gotten off to a slow start in the UK due to implementation challenges, but the government says it will be fully implemented by 2019.
We will hear more about the Universal Credit this week. At an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Iain Duncan Smith, UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and the architect of the policy—will keynote a discussion of what the United States can learn from the Universal Credit.
The fact is the Universal Credit doesn’t even remotely resemble Rep. Ryan’s proposal—or, for that matter, TANF or other block grants in the United States. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the Universal Credit will be an entitlement to eligible low-income people, one that is administered centrally by a single government agency.
We’re all for learning what we can from other countries, but the Universal Credit is not the most relevant policy for the United States to draw on. Among the key differences limiting its relevance to our system is the fact that one of the main problems the UK is trying to address—financial penalties for work—is far less of an issue in the United States. This is due to the design of our Earned Income Tax Credit—which kicks in at the first dollar of earnings—and the limited nature of other means-tested benefits for low-income unemployed people.
Moreover, a primer the Center for American Progress co-authored last year on the Universal Credit notes several concerns with the policy. For example, the UK’s Housing Benefit is currently a locally administered in-kind housing benefit paid directly to landlords on behalf of low-income tenants. Under the Universal Credit it will be paid directly to tenants as a cash benefit and administered centrally by the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. This has raised concerns about how tenants, especially vulnerable ones, will manage direct payments of housing costs, and what happens if they fall behind on rent.
We do, however, welcome a conversation on how the Universal Credit can spur momentum stateside to reduce the administrative burdens associated with navigating multiple safety net programs. But it is worth noting there are already a long list of effective homegrown practices and policy reforms on this front that are seeing results. For example, the Affordable Care Act created a new, simplified system that states can use to enroll eligible people into Medicaid and CHIP, including an option to enroll people based on their SNAP eligibility.
Beyond the Universal Credit, when it comes to social policy more generally there is indeed a lot the US could learn from the UK: the UK has stronger labor market protections, more modern workplace standards, and a longstanding commitment to ensuring that working-age people—whether in or out of work, and with or without children—have access to health care for free as well as a minimum floor of housing and income assistance. While we don’t know if these types of lessons and reforms will be discussed at this week’s AEI event, any discussion of the UK’s Universal Credit and its relevance to US social policy should not be divorced from this broader context.
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To that end, here are a few things we hope US policymakers do consider when taking lessons from across the pond:
- Health services and almost all prescription drugs are free for everyone in the UK. But in the US, 22 states have refused to implement the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, leaving millions without access to care and subject to higher “marginal tax rates.”
- In the UK, all low-income people who rent are guaranteed means-tested housing assistance; in the US only about one-quarter of eligible low-income renters receive help.
- The UK guarantees means-tested unemployment assistance to low-income people who are unemployed—a single unemployed person without children is eligible for weekly grants that total about $450 a month[i]. The US does not have a means-tested unemployment assistance program that guarantees benefits nationwide. Low-income people can access SNAP, but the benefits are much more modest, and can only be used for food.
- The UK provides a family allowance to all low- and middle-income families with children through its Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. In 2015, a single parent with one child and no earnings would be eligible for about $6,300 as a basic income guarantee under just these two benefits. While the US has a Child Tax Credit, it is modest by comparison and completely excludes families with no or very low earnings.
Although some of these programs—means-tested unemployment assistance, Housing Benefit, and Child Tax Credit—will be brought into the Universal Credit, they will continue to function as entitlements with the same base benefit levels.
Beyond benefit differences, it’s also worth noting that the UK has a national minimum wage, which is updated annually and currently equal to about $9.50 an hour (it will go higher when updated later this year) and gives almost all workers a legal entitlement to paid sick days. In addition, it provides paid family leave and a comparatively expansive system of pre-K and child-care assistance. This may help explain why women’s labor force participation has grown steadily since 2000 in the UK, while trending downward in the US.
In short, the US has a lot to learn from the UK. But we should glean our biggest lessons from the UK’s policy and reform successes that have improved basic labor standards, strengthened work-family balance, and fortified benefits for low-incomes families. Efforts like these have led to better outcomes for individuals and families, including lower poverty rates, than we have accomplished to date in the United States.
[i] This and other UK benefits amounts are converted into US dollars using an exchange rate that adjusts for cost of living differences between the UK and US.