Who Do We Subsidize?

There was a very interesting–and very odd– article in Governing recently, purportedly about means testing.The introductory argument was that our various policies about who we subsidize have resulted in rewarding those who clearly don’t need the particular benefit involved, while failing to help those who definitely do need help.

The lede gives you a hint of the author’s thesis:

When I turned 65, I instantly became eligible to ride on any D.C. Metro train for half-price. Perhaps I ought to have been grateful for this windfall, but in fact I found it annoying. I’m not rich by any means, but I can afford to pay full fare for a subway ride. I didn’t appreciate the idea of charging the taxpayers (myself among them) to give me and countless others a benefit we didn’t need. Warren Buffett can ride on the Metro for half-price if he comes to visit Washington. Stupid is the only word for it.

It isn’t simply kindness to old folks that has pissed him off; he also attacks the exemption for blind people on America’s tax returns. After all, he says, some blind people are wealthy.

It evidently hasn’t occurred to the author that these accommodations may have been intended as a way to show social respect for the elderly, or as a minor compensation for the lack of sight–that they weren’t measures intended to be part of America’s (admittedly inadequate, crazy-quilt) social safety net.

Aside from that somewhat odd introduction, the article didn’t really focus on problems with means testing, which is defined as a determination of eligibility for government assistance based upon the means (income) of the potential recipient. Instead, the article (quite properly) criticizes the way in which many fines are assessed.

A low-income single mother gets stopped for a minor traffic violation, perhaps a broken headlight or an illegal left turn. The fine is a couple of hundred dollars, which is more than she can afford. She is summoned to a court date that she can’t keep because she has to work or care for her children. A few missed court appearances, and she can be sent to jail and/or have her driver’s license suspended, possibly costing her the job she holds and needs to have.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it? A middle-class violator can walk into court, pay the fine and then walk out again. At first glance, it might seem equitable to charge everyone the same $490 for driving alone in a carpool lane (which is what California does). But it isn’t equitable.

The author proposes that, in order to be equitable, fines of this sort should be levied in an amount proportional to what the offender earns in a single day of work. Evidently, other countries do this, and the bulk of the article is an argument for following their example.

It’s a reasonable argument–but it really has nothing to do with means testing or the provision of subsidies–at least, not in the way we usually use those terms.

And that’s too bad, because I’m convinced that policymakers do need to revisit our approach to America’s tattered safety net and the whole concept of means testing, which rests on some deep-seated convictions about “deservingness.” (I once traced that obsession back to England’s 15th Century poor laws, which prohibited giving alms to “sturdy beggars.” The notion that some poor folks are deserving and others are not also has roots in a bastardized Calvinism, an analysis I will spare you…)

This approach to deservingness ignores all manner of structural/systemic inequity. It is also both massively expensive to operationalize and very frequently unfair in application. But aside from all the practical and equitable problems, America’s current approach to social welfare operates to strengthen popular divisions and harmful stereotypes.

Think about it.

I haven’t heard complaints from financially-comfortable Americans that “those people” are getting Social Security. Or that “those people” are driving on roads that I paid for with my tax dollars. I seriously doubt that any of the right-wingers braying about how national health insurance would be “socialism” are refusing to accept their Medicare. As other Western democracies have learned, a universal social benefit is not only less expensive to administer, it is far less socially divisive.

Bottom line: social safety net policy considerations shouldn’t be limited to a single-minded focus on “means,” just as there should be considerations other than uniformity of punishment when we assess fines.

And not so incidentally– policy debates would be  dramaticallyimproved by a more judicious attention to the use of language…


  1. For some strange reason, we and most other nations keep this going:
    How much are fossil fuels Subsidised?
    Image result for fossil fuel subsidies 2021
    The Environmental and Energy Study Institute estimates direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the US amount to $20bn per year – 80% of which goes towards oil and gas.Nov 15, 2021

  2. How many wealthy people in this country use public transportation? How many Indianapolis residents 65 years old and older would appreciate that half-fare benefit…IF ONLY THERE WAS PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AVAILABLE IN THEIR LOW INCOME NEIGHBORHOODS.

  3. Good read. I’d generally been on the “means test” side but the argument against that is worth reconsidering.

  4. The administering of who does or doesn’t “deserve” assistance. Furthermore, how can one tidy up the assistance to make it look unlike assistance? (i.e., loopholes)

    What about “good marketing” versus “bad marketing?” One could be a form of subsidy while the other an expensive proposition.

    Who deserves to have more than another? Is it based on morality or economics?

    I believe those working on societal constructs without money are on to something.

  5. In DC, most people take the metro to avoid driving in or near the beltway. The fact is that DC, Virginia, and Maryland have recognized the need for rapid transit and coughed up the funds to support it. (It isn’t always rapid, but it usually gets you where you want to go.). The point is, you only get what your community is willing to pay for. It doesn’t seem that Indiana is willing to pay for any sensible solution to any of their problems.

  6. Someone on this post on Facebook posted that people who didn’t need the money got the stimulus checks. Being an American gave them that right; there is little in this world that is fair, it is all part of democracy. If taxes were fair, Donald Trump and his ilk would have all been made to pay “their fair share” all these many years and the country would be in better condition. We wouldn’t be concerned with wealthy 65 year olds being qualified to pay half-fare on public transportation and public transportation would be where it is needed most.

  7. Capitalism is inherently a system to redistribute wealth up. The cure is progressive taxation.

  8. Integrity,

    A firm adherence to a code of especially moral values, incorruptibility.


    Impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.


    It judges truthfully regarding the moral quality of an act. Conscience is a cognitive process that elicits emotion and rational associations based on an individual’s moral philosophy or value system!

    “Shelter is a human need ranking in priority with food water and civilized life. Lack of these is a denial of a basic human right.” (Lord scarmen, president of the United Kingdom council for the international here of shelter for the homeless.)1988…

    Concerning inaction,
    How long can we talk about being fair? Talk is not an accomplishment. Neither is language! We talked about how terrible the genocide was by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. We talked about and used language concerning the genocide in Rwanda, we talked about The butchery Joseph Stalin was responsible for in Russia. The current internment of millions of Uyghurs in China. We talk about the genocide of native americans, and we talk about the genocide of those whose ancestors were bought here as slaves. And absolutely positively we talk about the Jewish Holocaust which cost probably close to 20 million lives, maybe even more!

    We talk about a current Holocaust taking place in the Ukraine. We use lots of language, because inaction can always be blamed on the misunderstanding of that language/talk.

    Language gave us the Emancipation Proclamation, but it also gave us Jim Crow!

    Moral Turpitude is the antithesis to a clean conscience. Being unfair is easy! It’s easy to foment hatred. For the majority, it’s hard to love your neighbor, and, as Christ said, love your enemy!

    Impartiality always is based on the conscience. Compassion and Empathy in how we treat our fellow man (love your neighbor.)

    Language tells the truth, but it will also tell the lie! Language will promote the conspiracies and disprove those conspiracies. Language drives Mob mentality. Language is only as good as those using it!

    When the conscience is rife with moral turpitude, the language is useless.

  9. JoAnn, you make a good point. It seems that our society grants to the wealthy tax breaks, policy making advantages, and social positions unavailable to those of modest means. The wealthy believe they are “entitled”. They believe they “earned” it. While never acknowledging that society provided their path to their wealth, and in an effort to distract from the gross inequalities they enjoy, they raise a ruckus over the discounted fare for bus rides by the over 65 crowd… as if any of them long to ride the bus.

  10. A blogger I read regularly made 2 points that have stayed with me:

    1) Forget means testing, give a benefit to everyone and claw it back from those who don’t need it via the tax code.

    2) If the only consequence for breaking a law is a fine, that means “it’s legal for rich people”

  11. recent conversation with my land lord,( i rent a old farm site that ive been conservitor for about 20 years) hes the second land owner in 20 years,now i dont mind a little bashing now and then about Bernie. but that day his tiraid was most discusting. as we read about how the right wing trumpers will pull apart someone for who he is(in reality,they havent a clue) in personal attacks about his whatevers,and never about the good. ive lived in the three state area here since 1983. when i moved into this area,it was rulled by democrates like Sen,Tom Dashle S.D. and Sen Byron Dorgan,and the whole conversation was democratic with most folk. when my landlords tiraid landed on peoples gotta have to survive,he just blows up and blames it all on those liberals. cool, i never stuck anything in his face directly in our conversations to be polite.but,one can only tollerate the BS so long. after his scorn was planted,i reminded him, how trump last election cycle paid for your vote by giving every land owner here (under a covid guise) $100 per acre in oliver county n.d. and most land owners here have 1000 plus acres after all the pass ons and foreclosures in the last 30 years. some amass 5000 acres or more. now he would rant about those who wont work,his direct aim is minorities,andI, being from a less desirable area of the country, his words were just alittle more than friendly.. so i reminded him of when his disaster or subsidy payments come from the goverment,well its welfare to…(i never used welfare in converstation ever in regard to him)and, those senate bills were written and passed,while senators like Dorgan and Dashel were getting,your votes..
    we all have heard the talk, all these people do to funnel the gosip,is yell into each others ear. i seriously dont see how they manage a buisness like thiers and survive..eh! welfare..
    have a nice day..

  12. When I read the title of this, I had a different idea of what this blog post was going to be about, along the lines of patmcc’s thoughts.

    Touch’e Joann Green @ 6:47.

    Warren Brownell; I like the idea of the claw back. If it is worth doing it is worth doing for everybody. It could be implemented using a “national benefits cards” for these transactions that would track them and be reported back to on a 1099 form. If you choose not to swipe the card, you don’t get the benefit, and you pay full price.

    Your second point is even even worse but that whole attitude seems to explain the almost endless scandals with the Trump administration. Maybe the why nobody seemed to care, is that we all secretly want to be in that position, and don’t want that privilege to go away if we are lucky enough to get there.

    Is an alternative to means based fines, something like mandatory community service? Nope, as I typed that sentence, I realized if you are rich, you can afford to take the time to do that. Means based fines will require a complete overhaul of the tax code so that you really can figure out what an hour of Warren Buffet’s or Donald Trump’s time is worth.

  13. Article,:
    Jacobin related to subject today,Danny Wordly
    to rebuild a universal welfare state,
    we need to scrap means testing…
    is from down under,but a deep imsight to how they screw the worker,retiries etc..

  14. Dan:
    the issue has been the disregard overall,of the rich,and lack of tax enforcement. though we read about the feds DA office in Manhatten case against trump. if the lawyers have already brow beaten that office into submission,and to maybe close the case, that is being pushed by the others like trump,who have done this for so long,they are now immune from prosecution.
    we cant even get them to pay any taxes. A totally ineffective tax and justice dept..

  15. As I mentioned about language and fairness, those two don’t always go hand in hand! Means testing? Exactly what does that mean? Does a person have the means to pay their taxes? Does the person have the means to buy their food? Does the person have the means to put gas in their tank? Means testing means nothing, it’s a joke!

    When you have senior citizens being taxed off of their property because they cannot continue to pay constant tax increases, do they take into consideration, seniors Means?


    What I’ve seen is the teachers unions and public works unions fighting against using means as a way of gauging taxation, because it might affect the tax base and therefore the money that they can push for, themselves. GREED, it’s a powerful force. And, it also goes in conjunction with Hate. We all like to claim we are fair, we all like to claim we’re compassionate, we all like to claim we have empathy, or our empathetic, but the reality says something different! The government is not empathetic or compassionate. It’s a business, even though they claim it is not. And as a business, you know what they say, “it’s just business nothing personal!”

  16. Before reading today’s blog my time was occupied researching PPP loan recipients. The trump/mnuchin PPP program had little to no regs and added over 1 Trillion to our debt. It was all free money to businesses and banks. Many, if not most, of those businesses never needed the money because they were either financially not affected at all or very little by the pandemic and could easily afford to absorb any losses brought on by the pandemic.

    Not only did they receive free money, but they will not owe one penny for taxes. Employees that received unemployment benefits during the pandemic will have to pay income taxes on 100% of benefits received in 2021 and had to pay taxes on all but $10,000 on 2020 benefits.

    This is truly American Socialism for the wealthy and harsh Capitalism for everyone else. Of course, there were businesses that suffered terribly during the pandemic and I don’t have a problem with trying to help them, but trump chose to give away a massive amount of taxpayer dollars to businesses and individuals that did not need any financial assistance at all. I have now seen the ppp loan info on local businesses and farmers, along with some fake businesses created just to get PPP money.

    Regarding today’s blog – one of my friend’s husband has slight hearing problems. He can easily hear conversations, so I am not sure how much of a hearing problem he has. The kicker is that he was issued a Handicap Parking Permit that will never expire for the hearing loss. This pass allows him to take a parking place from a physically handicapped person that truly needs it.

  17. The system has been rigged in favor of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for generations. The people in congress are almost always
    members of a wealthy class, and work to sustain that class. Yes, capitalism is what John called it, and I doubt we will ever see tax rates
    for the wealthy going back to the level they were before St. Reagan.
    “…far less socially divisive.” But, social division has been a ploy run by the wealthy, here, going back to colonial days, according to Zinn.
    He writes about the early plantation owners having the “have nots” removed to the west, as a buffer between them and the Native Americans,
    and encouraging the poor white folk to look down on the blacks so that they would not feel quite so maligned, as I recall.
    Thank you, Sheila, for sparing us the twisted illogic of the Calvinist apologetics.

  18. In general, I hate means testing. It adds to the cost of a program because of all the bureaucracy and hoops, obviously. In a good program, I’d prefer more of the money or services just go directly to the people. But the worst part is the stigma around these programs, both how others look at recipients and how the recipients are made to feel about themselves. It boils my blood.

    I’d prefer situations where the method of determining participation is very limited or nonexistent. If anyone is worried that someone is getting something they shouldn’t, like a too-rich person receiving a benefit, claw it back on the tax forms. In taxes, you already have a process in which everyone participates, where you have access to the fundamental monies the person receives, their assets, lots of information about the makeup of the family, and much more.

    This reminds me of the “story” (was it told by Paul Ryan, maybe?) of a kid receiving a free lunch at school, and how stigmatized that kid felt by receiving it. He “just wanted a brown bag lunch like everyone else.” This is stupid. The obvious answer is never considered: just give everyone that lunch, and all are fed and no one feels badly about it. Tax dollars pays, but the most needing the benefit won’t fall into a tax bracket that actually pays for it.

  19. For anyone that may be interested in looking up any PPP loan info the best place I found to access it is
    You can narrow it down by state, county or zip code. If you click on a business name it will bring up the details of each loan – dates approved and forgiven, amounts forgiven that includes interest paid to the lenders, lender name, stated use for the money, # of employees, etc.

    You may recognize fake businesses like I did. Complaints can be given to the OIG in DC via phone. Sorry, I don’t have that number with me at the moment but it can be googled.

    Jack – you will most likely recognize farmers or businesses you know. Good info to have available when they complain about having to pay taxes to support all the people on welfare that they claim are too lazy to work. Ir when they were angry about the temporary increase in unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

  20. The point is being missed. The article was about minor fines, “day fines” and began with this example:

    A low-income single mother gets stopped for a minor traffic violation, perhaps a broken headlight or an illegal left turn. The fine is a couple of hundred dollars, which is more than she can afford. She is summoned to a court date that she can’t keep because she has to work or care for her children. A few missed court appearances, and she can be sent to jail and/or have her driver’s license suspended, possibly costing her the job she holds and needs to have.

    And, from the same article an example of another way to do “means testing”:

    Finland has been doing it since 1921. In fact, Finland is the most draconian example of the day fine system. Any violation can cost you half of a day’s income. If you don’t pay up promptly, you lose three days’ income. If you lie about your income, you can go to jail for three months. A few years ago, a Nokia executive was fined 116,000 euros for a speeding violation.

    Something to think about…

  21. So if I’m a “poor” drug dealer, I’m getting a break on driving violations?
    If I’m a coupon clipper with no salary, I get the same break?
    Nah. I’ll keep working on training standards and accountability
    for police, judges, politicians. Barbers have licenses.
    And a civics test for running for office and voting.
    Do you know the name for that?

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