Against Means Testing

March 17th, 2010  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  6 Comments

As a teenager in Minnesota, I attended my first Democratic Party caucus, where we sat in a church basement while a prospective candidate for office appealed for our support. At one point, a member of the audience asked the candidate for his position on the means-testing of public programs. When the candidate responded by asking which programs, in particular, ought to be means-tested, the questioner replied “any that conceivably could be means-tested”.

At the time I didn’t yet understand what “means testing” meant, but I still found this response a bit peculiar. It suggested that “means testing” was some kind of general point of principle rather than some technical point about implementing specific programs, which is what it sounded like.

I later found out that means testing refers to the practice of making public benefits conditional on one’s demonstrated need for them, and on one’s financial means of obtaining equivalent services in the private market. Policies that are specifically targeted at the poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid in the United States, are therefore means-tested programs. People like the man at the caucus meeting are in favor of extending this structure to programs which are not currently means-tested, like Social Security. They argue that cash support for the aged should be provided only to those who do not have sufficient income to get along without it.

This position has a superficial plausibility that makes it attractive not only to conservatives, but even to people on the left who are concerned about equality and social justice. It seems unnecessary, even unjust, to provide public benefits to those who are already affluent, particularly when doing so uses up finite public funds that could otherwise be redirected to those more deserving. However, I have come around to the position that means-testing of public benefits is something that the left should essentially never support.

The first justification for this position is entirely political in nature. In short, I do not believe it is possible to sustain the public consensus necessary to defend a generous welfare state regime, if the benefits of that regime are perceived as being directed to a privileged subset of the population. Setting up benefits in this way inevitably breeds resentment among those segments of the working class who pay taxes and do not receive substantial benefits, who then become open to the argument that the poor are parasitic on their hard work. This tendency is accentuated by the fact that the beneficiaries of means-tested programs will tend to be people who are already subject to social stigma and bigotry, such as women and members of racial minorities. The paradigmatic example of this in the United States is the dismantling of “welfare as we know it” in the 1990’s. In that struggle, the barely-coded racist imagery of “welfare queens” highlighted a perception that the recipients of welfare were undeserving and opportunistic Others rather than people who could have, with a bit of bad luck, been any of us.

Not all elements of the welfare state suffer the same fate as welfare, however, not even in the United States. Consider, for example, the resilience of Social Security and Medicare in the face of decades of persistent conservative and neo-liberal attacks, culminating most recently in George W. Bush’s abortive attempt to privatize Social Security. Those programs remain extremely popular with a broad cross-section of the public, to the point that Republicans will demagogue against Democratic health care proposals by posing as defenders of Medicare.

The difference between Medicare and Welfare, of course, is that Medicare is for everybody. You receive it when you turn 65, with no ifs, ands or buts. It therefore has the character of a social right, an entitlement of citizenship, rather than a special benefit or privilege. If a means test were to be imposed, however, it would convert Medicare into a program like Welfare–or indeed, a program like Medicaid, which, though ostensibly available nationwide, tends to be provided in a quite paltry form in poorer and more conservative states.

I therefore conclude that means testing of public benefits is little more than a trap set for progressives by those whose ultimate goal is the total destruction of these programs. Universal social rights are politically defensible, while particularist benefits are not. This lesson is, I think, supported by the work of Political Scientist Paul Pierson; as Joshua Tucker explains at the Monkey Cage, Pierson “explained how difficult it would be for governments to consolidate or retrench existing social policy programs, because these policies (pensions being the best example) create their own support coalition that reaches far beyond the left-wing electorate.”

There is, however, an additional reason to support universalistic rather than targeted public programs, and this is a matter of principle rather than politics. The problem with means-tested benefits is not only that they are politically untenable, but that they inevitably put the state in the business of judging the worth and deservingness of applicants–and thus, by extension, judging the way in which they lead their lives. If, for example, welfare benefits are made contingent on performing work of some kind, then the state must decide what counts as a legitimate form of work. Does, for example, a mother’s time spent raising a child count? Does getting a college education count? If it does, are all majors equally acceptable?

The fact that the state must adjudicate these issues–and must do so continually over time, since a person’s status is constantly subject to change–means that benefit recipients are constantly subject to arbitrary bureaucratic domination. Universal benefits, on the other hand, require relatively little meddling in people’s lives: in a country with universal health care, the only consideration for the state is whether or not you are a citizen. One should not, of course, understate the extremely fraught and contentious politics of citizenship itself, which may turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of social democracy in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I regard it as a major step forward if we are arguing over who has the rights of citizenship rather than attempting to judge what makes a person deserving of some particular benefit.  I think that ultimately, means tested benefits tend to make the poor less free and less autonomous than the affluent. This is precisely the opposite of the goal we should be aiming at in thinking about the welfare state, which should be about enhancing human freedom and facilitating human flourishing.

This line of argument is, in a certain sense, in sympathy with critiques of the welfare state that have been offered from libertarian, anarchist, and Foucauldian perspectives. Unfortunately, discussion of these arguments tends to become bogged down in a narrow debate over whether one is “for” or “against” the welfare state. By now, however, we should all understand that there is not one welfare state but many, and that different institutional configurations can have very different implications for people’s lives. Thus my goal as a writer and researcher is to promote a vision of the welfare state that enables individual autonomy and freedom by guaranteeing a basic standard of living as a human right, while simutaneously critiquing the idea that public benefits are special supports provided only to the deserving poor, and only in those instances where the private capitalist marketplace has “failed”.