This phrase suddenly started to appear in British newspapers in January 1998, just at the time when the Government was starting a series of national road shows to try to communicate its proposals for reform of the welfare state. It referred to plans, then not clearly articulated, to ensure that benefits went to those most in need by applying tests of claimants’ financial resources.
There was already a well-known term in the language for this process, means test, but the evidence suggests the Labour government was at the time keen to avoid it. Its supporters have always been opposed to means tests because they are intrusive and embarrassing for claimants and they are believed to lead to arbitrary decisions that stigmatise recipients. Some commentators suggested at the time that the term was an attempt to avoid such objections by giving the impression that it was the less deserving better-off that would be targeted by the new tests, not those in genuine need.
The word was not original to the Labour government: it was coined in the US and seems to have been popularised in a book of 1993, Facing Up, by Peter G Peterson, former secretary of commerce in the Nixon administration. But the term is even older, having been used in hearings before the US Congress in 1964.
The phrase continues to be found in American publications, but has largely dropped out of British political discourse.
This week Harriet Harman, the social-security secretary, floated the idea of an “affluence test” to stop benefit payments to the better-off.
Economist, Jan 1998
Ms Harman said an affluence test could be used to determine who really needed to receive benefits such as statutory maternity pay, which was often available to high-earning women even though a fifth of pregnant women received nothing at all.
Birmingham Post, Jan 1998