Targeting in Social Policy

Social policy typically aims to promote the welfare of society and individuals and in many ways works to enhance equality through institutional or government support. There are many approaches to achieve this aim, including universalism and the utilization of targeting. Universalism is a social policy approach which maintains equal resources or services for all members of a population (Carey & Crammond, 2014). Different varieties of universalism contain caveats for those eligible for the resource, but overall universalism is an equal approach to every individual’s needs. Targeting is a strategy typically used to reduce inequality by providing specific services to specific groups. This strategy typically requires either need or means testing to discern where to distribute resources to for the most successful outcome. In nearly all approaches to social policy both universalism and targeting are present to some degree (Fitzpatrick, 2012). The ideal outcome of either method is typically a minimization of inequality between individuals in society. Targeting and universalism as approaches in social policy each have merits and drawbacks, and the motive behind an approach does not always align with its outcomes. When aiming to enhance equality, it is most important to accurately apply, with research and potentially testing, either targeting, universalism, or a combination of the two to address specific issues.

The accurate application of a targeted approach is rooted in how one defines an issue and identifies the group in need. This is evident in the gradual incorporation of targeting in Scotland’s child health program. The originally wholly universal program reduced health visits and reviews from six to two, while adding the HPI (Health Plan Indicator) which identified the children in need of additional support. Variables such as birth details, health visit reviews, neonatal and maternal data, and location were considered when categorizing children, and categorized as additional or intensive from the HPI received corresponding additional visits or structured aid (Brown, et al., 2012). This exemplifies targeting through needs testing, as an institution has found the individuals in need of support and supplied additional resources to those individuals.

This shift to targeting within universalism, in addition to other changes by the Scottish government to infant nutrition policies, resulted in a specific change to mothers’ breastfeeding approach. When analyzed alongside qualifications, changes in breastfeeding were more apparent in mothers without qualifications than those with. There was a slight reduction in the continuation of breastfeeding beyond one month for mothers with qualifications in 2010–11 compared to in 2004–05 (before policies had been introduced). However, mothers without qualifications were significantly more likely to begin breastfeeding continue beyond the six-month point (Skafida, 2014). This reduction in inequality regarding breastfeeding practices directly correlates to the reduction in universal child health visits and increase in at-risk child health visits. Accurately implementing targeting policies into a universalist health program created, in this case, a more equitable and successful outcome for young children regarding breastfeeding and likely many other unquantifiable outcomes.

The idea of false universalism also warrants a readjustment towards a ‘truer’ or more accurate universalist approach. False universalism either incorporates a degree of targeting, which aids it in being a more equitable policy approach or it caters to the needs of a predominant group (i.e., white men) without considering others (i.e., women and minority ethnicities) (Carey & Crammond, 2014). Lack of accountability for differences in access or existing inequalities results in “crude” forms of universalism which confuse sameness for equality (Hoggett & Thompson, 1996). One example of such a policy is the Children and Young People’s Bill specifically regarding nursery education, which aims to reduce the impact low socio-economic status might have on a child’s life. This bill includes investment in nursery education but generalizes the impact by increasing entitlement to education for every child from 450 to 600 hours, not only those with the lowest socio-economic status (Ellis & Sosu, 2014). While this increase in early education is important, the lack of provisions for quality of early education and the general universalism of the bill makes it likely less effective in reducing gaps in socio-economic educational achievements (Ellis & Sosu, 2014). The universality of the nursery education policy is undermined by the different transportation capabilities, living conditions, and neighborhoods of different families, all of which affect their ability to take advantage of the entitlement to early education (Ellis & Sosu, 2014). Additionally, while no real analysis of the effects of this policy are available, educational attainment gaps are difficult to analyze. In one study researchers found that the United Kingdom’s expanding higher education primarily and disproportionately benefited upper-class children (Machin & Vignoles, 2004). On the other hand, another study found that educational inequality began to decrease because of different policy measures, specifically changes in school structure, over time, but only after upper-class educational attainment plateaued (Paterson, 2020). These results both illustrate the difficulty of measuring policy effectiveness, but also show that a supposedly universal policy, whether expansion of higher education, overall difference in school structure, and more early education, all have the potential to disproportionately benefit the upper class, only reducing disparities once there is a plateau in achievement for the upper class.

An example of more effective ‘true’ universalism appears in Nordic universalist social policy. Anneli Anttonen argues in the article Universalism and social policy: a Nordic-feminist revaluation that the accurately applied approach to universalism in Scandinavia has reduced gender disparities by treating everyone equal within social policy. Universalism that redistributes resources through equal treatment of all citizens has the potential to increase inter-class solidarity, while targeting is the antithesis of a connected and equal society because it divides people via means testing and differing allotment of resources (Esping-Andersen, 2013, pp. 16–25). In Nordic societies, the most important factor in successful universalist policy was the accurate definition of a universal citizen as a ‘productive and responsible man or woman whose duty was to serve the nation by denying his or her egoistic interests and drives’ (Anttonen, 2002, p. 74). Additionally, because of the democratic nature of Scandinavian society, the definition of social rights and citizenship can be transformed to be more woman-friendly by combining women and minority social rights into the Nordic definition of universalism according to Hernes (1987) as cited by Anttonen (2002). The primary example of feminism and reduction of gender inequality in Nordic societies is the effect of expanding social services for women; it alleviated the burden of domestic work or expense, and enabled women to exist as care-providers and workers (Anttonen, 2002). This clearly enhanced gender equality in the workforce as well as class differences in care provision capabilities through universalizing an essential aspect of citizen responsibilities.

Without the clear and equal definition of citizenship that Nordic states promote, universalist policies run the risk of exacerbating inequalities through false universalism. Hillyard and Watson’s argument for a postmodern approach to social policy asserts that universalist policies cannot account for the nuance and interconnectedness of individual identities and needs (Hillyard & Watson, 2009, pp. 323–325; Akai, et al., 2016). In their article Postmodern Social Policy: A Contradiction in Terms? Hillyard and Watson emphasize the effect of power relations on the creation of universalist social policy; using Foucault’s ideology of power enmeshed in all aspects of society to argue that modern universalism focuses on the male individuals’ needs as a universal measure (Foucault 1977 in Watson & Hillyard (2009)). This view, where the male standard is considered universal, permeates all aspects of data collection and the actions made based on biased data (Criado Perez, 2020). It leads to social policy, either targeted or universal, which lacks accuracy and applicability because in real societies people must be recognized for the significance of their ‘particularities’ and solutions oriented toward white men will therefore be ineffective (Yeatman, 1994, p. 24). Even disregarding these innate flaws in standard universal social policy, Anttonen admits that Nordic societies contain targeting and other redistributive methods to a certain extent within their social policy approach, saying ‘there is no single country in the world where all social policy institutions are universal’ (Anttonen, 2002, p. 72). Many countries have added nuance to their universal policies such as Denmark’s means-tested old-age pension and the specific targeting within Finnish sickness benefits (Ploug, 2002). Anttonen’s sentence could well replace ‘universal’ with ‘targeted’, because in reality no social policy method in its purest form is effective for every social issue.

Social policy typically aims to enhance equality, but there are myriad ways to achieve this aim. Neither universalism nor targeting is perfect in every instance because every implementation of social policy has flaws influenced by bias or inaccuracy. However, when used intentionally and when specifically applicable, both universalism and targeting can enhance equality, such as with the universal childcare provisions in Nordic societies or the targeted Scottish child health visits. These policies were successful in enhancing equality because of their intentional and accurate application in society. Policy approaches, then, should not be argued for as one-size-fits-all approaches but as a toolbox of methodologies for different circumstances in different societies.

Works Cited

Akai, K., Konow, J. & Saijo, T., 2016. Equity versus Equality. Munich Personal RePEc Archive.

Anttonen, A., 2002. Universalism and social policy: a Nordic-feminist revaluation. Nora: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 10(2), pp. 71–80.

Brown, H., Stockton, D. & Wood, R., 2012. Moving from a universal to targeted child health programme: which children receive enhanced care? A population-based study using routinely available data. Child : care, health & development, 39(6), pp. 772–781.

Carey, G. & Crammond, B., 2014. A glossary of policy frameworks: the many forms of ‘universalism ‘ and policy ‘targeting’. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health , 71(3), pp. 303–307.

Criado Perez, C., 2020. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. s.l.:Vintage Books.

Ellis, S. & Sosu, E., 2014. Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education, s.l.: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Esping-Andersen, G., 2013. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. s.l.:John Wiley & Sons.

Fitzpatrick, T., 2012. Cash Transfers. In: J. Baldock, L. Mitton, N. Manning & S. Vickerstaff, eds. Social Policy. s.l.:Oxford University Press, pp. 218–237.

Hillyard, P. & Watson, S., 2009. Postmodern Social Policy: A Contradiction in Terms?. Journal of Social Policy, 25(3), pp. 321–346.

Hoggett, P. & Thompson, S., 1996. Universalism, selectivism and particularism: Towards a postmodern social policy. Critical Social Policy, 16(46), pp. 21–42.

Machin, S. & Vignoles, A., 2004. Educational inequality: the widening socio-economic gap. Fiscal Studies, 25(2), pp. 107–128.

Paterson, L., 2020. Schools, policy and social change: Scottish secondary education in the second half of the twentieth century. Research Papers in Education, pp. 1–26.

Ploug, N., 2002. Nordic Social Policy: Changing Welfare States. s.l.:Routledge.

Skafida, V., 2014. Change in breastfeeding patterns in Scotland between 2004 and 2011 and the role of health policy. European Journal of Public Health , 24(6), pp. 1033–1041.

Strand, S., 2014. Ethnicity, gender, social class and achievement gaps at age 16: intersectionality and ‘getting it’ for the white working class. Research Papers in Education , 29(2), pp. 131–171.

Yeatman, A., 1994. Postmodern Revisionings of the Political. s.l.:Routledge.



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Solveig Lee

Solveig Lee

University of Edinburgh. Sociology and Social Policy.