Targeted vs. Universal Programs

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

Click for Perlman presentation

Concept description

Michal Perlman (2012, reference below) defines targeted interventions as services provided to specific individuals based on their characteristics and universal interventions as services provided to all individuals in a given region/jurisdiction regardless of their characteristics.

Targeted programs usually involve means-tested (or income-tested) benefits and services.

Perlman summarizes the pros and cons of targeted and universal services aimed at children:


Lower total cost

Smaller displacement of private spending

Higher per child economic returns

Administrative costs associated with eligibility

Children move in and out of eligibility because of changing family circumstances

Eligibility rules often exclude children who can benefit

Not all children enrol because of confusion over rules or stigma

Possible negative peer effects if “at-risk” kids are segregated

Programs often not fully funded or not funded at level required for high quality


Higher total cost

Higher displacement of private spending

Lower per child economic returns

No administrative costs associated with determining eligibility

Children remain eligible regardless of changing circumstances

All children who can benefit are eligible

Participation may be higher and with greater integration within programs or classrooms

No segregation of “at-risk” kids

Public or political support for fully funded high quality programs may be higher

Writing in Brookings Future Development series, Raj Desai (2017, reference below) summarizes the contrast between targeting and universalism in social programs:

“Universalism … proposes that all citizens of a nation receive the same publicly provided benefits [while] proponents of targeting argue for using various mechanisms to identify, and distribute the bulk of benefits to, the poor.”

Desai writes:

“The merits of universalism, for its defenders, are clear. First, there is the issue of accuracy, in that the information needed to identify accurately the poor is often complex and imprecise, with the poorest countries often lacking the statistical capacity to resolve these issues. Additionally, there is evidence that, because of the burdens placed on state administrations, universal benefits are sometimes cheaper than targeting. Some also argue that targeted programs create tensions between those who are excluded – some of whom may be among the poor but “missed” by targeting schemes – and the beneficiaries. Others have pointed out the tendency of politicians to abuse targeted programs by converting them into instruments of patronage.”

Writing in the iD4D blog coordinated by the Agence Française de Développement, Reslan Yemtsov (2016, reference below) summarizes the targeting vs. universalism debate as it applies to social protection in developing countries:

“Universal approach proposes that all citizens of a nation receive the same state-provided benefits. Universalists are optimistic that the social unity resulting from a uniform provision of benefits will garner a sufficient budget (nationally financed in middle-income countries and donor assisted in low-income countries) to provide meaningful protection. Universalists question targeting from the perspectives of human rights, or moral principles of equity, or from the practicalities of targeting and its costs, including political costs and costs to beneficiaries. Universalists believe that experience with targeting as a way to increase the efficiency of redistributive spending has been unsatisfactory, divisive, costly, and detrimental to efforts to increase the budget of social programs.

“In contrast, proponents of targeting have a more optimistic assessment of targeting experience so far and are hopeful that modern technology will help to minimize the error, while improvement in governance will make targeting procedures more inclusive. Their pessimism concerns budgets, seeing both political and technical obstacles to budgets becoming sufficient to provide meaningful universal benefits. They note that countries are not coming from scratch into the selection of which scheme- universal or targeted to choose. Most of the time they have a legacy of universal subsidies, often on food that is supposedly open to everyone. The choice of targeting comes from dissatisfaction with the poor results of universal subsidies.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Michal Perlman (2012), Targeted vs. Universal Intervention, Seminar presentation at the OISE Atkinson Centre, 11 April 2012 (see at, accessed 12 December 2018.

Raj M Desai, Rethinking the universalism versus targeting debate, Brookings Future Development, 31 May 2017, at, accessed 12 December 2018.

Ruslan Yemtsov (2016), Social Protection – Universal & poverty targeting approaches are not in contradiction, iD4D blog, 16 August 2016, at, accessed 12 December 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 December 2018.

Image: Michal Perlman (2012), Targeted vs. Universal Intervention, Seminar presentation at the OISE Atkinson Centre, 11 April 2012 at, accessed 12 December 2018.