Targeting, universalism, and other factors affecting social programs’ political strength

There is a longstanding debate in policy circles over the relative merits of social programs that are targeted by income and social programs that are universal in that they are available to people at all income levels. A popular narrative holds that targeted programs are inherently weak politically and tend to be cut or eliminated over time and that universal programs inevitably do better. An often-cited adage states, “Programs for the poor are poor programs.” This paper examines these issues, focusing on the 40 years before the recent pandemic and recession, from 1979 to 2019. It also considers what other factors beyond a program’s targeted or universal nature have an impact on its political weakness or strength. In addition, the paper looks at how well universal and targeted programs do in areas such as reducing poverty and reaching the people eligible for the programs. It concludes with some of the policy implications of the paper’s findings.