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…