Universal Goals and Limited Resources

A TARGETED UNIVERSAL agenda will generate multiple strategies and policies. As discussed earlier, some of these strategies may serve many people, including those experiencing greater suffering. Indeed, while the focus should be on the most marginal groups, strategies can address the condition of that group, but move even larger and more diverse groups toward the universal goal. Often the reason we turn to policy for changes is care, concern, or outrage for suffering and injustice. Some strategies may promise benefits to people who are disadvantaged by systems and structures, but who are not facing existential threats. With a long list of strategies and policies generated within the targeted universalism approach, it is likely that decisions will have to be made about how to allocate resources, what to prioritize, or what to pursue. Despite the likelihood of generating more strategies than a single group or agency could implement, generating the full set is a necessary and critical part of targeted universalism. Urgency and relief of suffering often promote the selection of a limited array of strategies to implement.

This too is a reason to pursue structural reforms which are more durable and can be a more efficient use of limited resources. Often structural changes that can serve a wide array of people are better insulated from the political backlash and resentment that feeds group-targeting. Transformative changes are more likely to redound to the benefit of all groups compared to transactional reforms that remove barriers for a single or few groups. It’s often the case that successful implementation of “smaller scale” transactional changes or smaller scale demonstrations of big change strategies can generate greater financial and political support down the line.

Prioritizing structural change—transformational change—can be a more efficient use of limited resources. It can also direct attention, and limited financial resources, to strategies that address the greater and more urgent needs, as well as to those strategies that promote more durable changes or provide greater relief. 

The superior tailoring means that resources directed into targeted universal programs have a better chance at producing tangible gains than those that are delimited only to group membership, without respect to need or situation. In addition, by redounding to the benefit of all people impeded by the structural barrier or lack of resources, targeted universalism policies are infused with positive externalities that redound to the broader public. 

There are times when the analysis of identifying strategies will reveal surprising unexpected outcomes. In a notable example we have worked on, a room full of education experts were joined together to address high student turnover in a local elementary school. The analysis was not limited to the classroom or school and included sources of information from the impacted communities. Because of this, it was clear that the problem was a lack of affordable housing throughout the city. The problem laid outside of the local school and even outside of its local geographic area. While the strategy pointed to housing solutions, there wasn’t a member of the group who had any control or networks in the local housing system. Though incredibly productive, this analysis did not lead to immediately moving on to implementing a strategy. In fact, they had to back up, establish a plan to create strategic networks, and learn more about the housing system from an expanded team. The question of resources and capacity is not only limited to financial resources or to the staff capacity at any particular group. 

The practical limits of “on the ground” action can make the process of transactional and transformation change complex and impossible to predetermine. While there are real limits, there is also a need to question a premature focus on limits to address a problem. Often the resources available are greater or more flexible than imagined—or expanding resources may become part of “next steps” for a change effort. Rethinking and working outside of a scarcity of resources frame is an important aspect of targeted universalism—despite the fact that it can be a very real factor at the initial stages.