Means testing has always sounded, at least on the surface, like it makes sense-- just help the poor, not rich people who don't really need social safety net policies like Social Security, free community college, Medicare, etc. Conservatives have been using the argument for decades; it's a way of undermining popular programs with a subtle divisiveness that turns social cohesiveness into an aspect of class war. Yesterday, the Washington Post published a perfect OpEd on the topic by two young congressional superstars, Mondaire Jones (D-NY) and Katie Porter (D-CA). "Universal programs," they wrote to get started, "are popular programs."
Eighty-six years ago, in the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, creating a social safety net so that every American could age with dignity. “This law,” Roosevelt said at the time, “represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
Thirty years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson built upon that structure by leading the fight to establish Medicare. For the first time in our nation’s history, seniors no longer had to worry about whether they could afford the health care they needed to stay alive.
A lot has changed since 1935, but Social Security and Medicare remain popular and effective.
That is because they are universal. They don’t depend on income caps or eligibility verification; every American can start receiving these benefits in their 60s. And while some at the very top of our society need not rely on these programs, the majority of older Americans can and do.
This year, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build again on the cornerstone Roosevelt laid decades ago by passing President Biden’s Build Back Better Act. This legislation provides historic investments in child care and higher education, and an expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage.
But for Biden’s agenda to meet its potential, we must heed the lessons of the past. That means making our investments universal.
We can’t, as some have insisted, weaken the proposals by “means testing” them: restricting benefits only to those who meet arbitrary income requirements and who have the ability to prove they do.
Proponents of means testing propose it under the guise of “fiscal responsibility”-- saving the government money by providing benefits only to individuals who actually need them.
The reality is not that simple. Means-tested programs cost more to administer, because complex systems, processes and entire offices must be created to determine who qualifies. A 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that administrative costs “would add substantially to the operating cost of the program” and “eliminate most, if not all, of the savings from a plausible means test.” Instead of wasting money on bloated bureaucracy, universal programs allow us to maximize our investment in the American people.
In theory, means testing excludes the undeserving rich; in practice, it often excludes the most vulnerable poor, who aren’t always able to jump through the required hoops to prove their eligibility. As a result, the people most in need-- disproportionately low-income Americans and people of color-- can’t access the programs at all, either because they can’t complete the application process or they’re too intimidated to try.
The federal government has never been particularly accurate at measuring need anyway. To this day, we still base some forms of assistance on the “poverty line,” a measurement whose criteria have not been updated since 1963. The poverty line also fails to account for regional variation in cost of living. The needs of people in our home states of California and New York, where cost of living is high, are defined by the same standard as those in cheaper states. When we draw arbitrary lines based on imperfect measurements, it’s no wonder we draw the line too low.
Universal programs are good policy and good politics. They build solidarity that helps them stand the test of time-- when we all have a stake in the success of a public program, it can withstand changing political winds. Medicare and Social Security are so untouchable that Donald Trump ran on protecting them. Means-tested programs such as SNAP and TANF, in contrast, have been cut by Democrats and Republicans alike in the past decade.
We need to show that government can still work for all Americans. We do that by creating programs that are broadly accessible, understandable and beneficial. That’s why the child-care program that we fought to include in the Build Back Better Act in the House doesn’t include means testing, and why we’re fighting to keep means testing out of any part of the final bill that’s signed into law.
Fundamentally, means testing is a choice to deprive millions of our neighbors of what they need simply to cope with a budget artificially limited by regressive tax policy. The truth is, there is enough to go around when we make the wealthiest Americans and big corporations pay their fair shares.
The Build Back Better Act is an investment in our nation, our economy and our most precious asset: our people. In the wealthiest nation on Earth, there is no justification for means testing that investment.
Mike Ortega is the progressive Democrat taking on corrupt Blue Dog Lou Correa in Orange County. This afternoon he told me that "Reps. Jones and Porter couldn’t be more correct here-- means testing is a choice made by Washington insiders and career politicians. My opponent, Lou Correa, has been in electoral politics for nearly 25 years, and he’s continuously wagging his finger at universal programs. The economists in Biden’s administration don’t even agree with this now-defunct economic theory. The writing is on the wall-- we must pass universal programs if we’re going to begin to alleviate the unnecessary suffering in this country. We must have the courage to make the choice rooted in the radical understanding that we have a moral responsibility to help each other-- not choices rooted in corporate greed. For our district, CA-46, this starts with electing a bold progressive agenda and ousting the incumbent."
"If you’ve ever wondered why some countries have a consistently high happiness rating and generally positive outlook on their government (think Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand), especially as compared to the US, a lot of that is due to strong, universal, social safety net programs," Washington progressive Jason Call told me earlier today. "It isn’t even socialism, as the GOP and right wing Dems would have us believe. These are fairly capitalistic economies, but with strong unions, and an understanding that the purpose of good government is to provide for the general welfare. You know, like the US Constitution says, but that the US government doesn’t actually do.
"Healthcare, education, fair wages, housing, dignity in retirement-- these things should be universal. And in other countries they are. But for some reason, the Reagan era brought with it withering assaults on unions and a brutal slashing of the social safety net, slashing all kinds of assistances to low income residents, and the vast majority of the Democratic Party shifted to the right to accommodate those attacks.
"The purpose of these attacks on social safety nets then, and now, is singular-- it is to disenfranchise the working class who scrape by from meager paycheck to meager paycheck. It is to subdue struggling millions, and it dovetails with other policies such as increasing police funding and voter disenfranchisement.
"All of this is happening while the federal government continues to prop up a bloated and corrupt military industrial complex and deny Americans even the basest of short term relief during a pandemic and economic crisis.
"It’s no wonder that working class Americans are starting to recognize that they don’t have to take this lying down. They can revolt against the revolting oligarchy whose preferred policies are kept in place by not only the GOP but by corporate funded Democrats like WA-02 Rick Larsen. Larsen, who always votes for military spending, has said publicly ‘all options should be on the table’ in regards to balancing federal budgets, and that means going after the social safety net. We can do better."