You Can Have Means Testing or You Can Have Democracy

Political scientists are discovering something that today’s Democrats refuse to understand: social policy is about more than technocratic tinkering — it defines who counts as a full citizen. And means testing tears apart the very fabric of society.

Staff sergeant Herbert Ellison explains the GI Bill of Rights to the African American members of the quartermaster trucking company. Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG / Getty

A few weeks ago, I made my way through Soldiers to Citizens, a 2005 book by the political scientist Suzanne Mettler. Ostensibly a history of the GI Bill, the work is part of a burgeoning scholarly field studying “policy feedback” — a somnolent name for a groundbreaking set of ideas.

The school’s key insight is that “policy makes politics.” A given policy measure should be judged not simply for its surface-level intent and immediate effects (lowering health-care costs, improving education, reducing crime), but how it shapes the future political landscape. The very design of policies (universal or means-tested, simple or byzantine) can empower citizens or stigmatize them; create emboldened constituencies or impotent ones.

Mettler shows that the post–World War II GI Bill, with its capacious coverage and no-strings-attached benefits, telegraphed an unambiguous message: those who served in the military were full members of the American polity and had the right to the good life. Veterans received education and job training without having to wind their way through baroque procedures or fend off officious bureaucrats. They were treated, in a word, like citizens.

And they acted liked it. Mettler finds that civic involvement and political participation were higher among former GI Bill enrollees than those outside its auspices. The effect on black veterans was particularly striking. Although locked out of many colleges in the South and buffeted by job-market discrimination around the country, African Americans under the GI Bill were considered rights-bearing citizens like anyone else. The result:

Black G.I. Bill users immersed themselves in confrontational political activity, challenging politics as usual in order to gain the rights of equal citizenship . . . During the height of the civil rights era, 1950 to 1964, 35 percent of black users participated in such activities compared to 8 percent of black nonusers and 2 percent of white users; rates in the 1965 to 1979 period were comparable.

Andrea Campbell has discovered similar effects for low-income seniors. Before Social Security, a huge swath of elderly citizens weren’t just poor — they were political pariahs. Social Security brought recipients out of the shadows, granting them the resources and standing to advocate for their interests. Political participation skyrocketed.

The messages that policies send aren’t always positive. Mettler notes that the effective exclusion of women from the GI Bill exacerbated their status as second-class citizens in postwar America. Elsewhere, she has written about the impact that opaque policies have on perceptions of government. Channeling benefits through the tax code instead of clear government programs (Medicare, Social Security) distorts people’s perceptions about who is and isn’t receiving government largesse. Middle-class and rich homeowners are showered with billions in tax advantages through the home mortgage interest deduction, yet can style themselves as deserving meritocrats, disconnected from the charity cases below them.

Those at the bottom of society typically encounter the harshest messages about their relationship to government. Many in poor and working-class neighborhoods, particularly people of color, see the state only when it’s a cop slapping handcuffs on their wrists, a caseworker demanding pay stubs before denying them benefits, or a school resource officer monitoring their child’s every movement in the hallways.

Day after day, they’re pummeled with the same information: the government doesn’t work for people like you, and if the state thinks of you at all, it’s as a subject instead of a citizen. Government seems, in the words of political scientists Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver, “all-powerful and primarily punitive.”

Studying the effects of mass incarceration on political attitudes, the two find “that people who have had adversarial encounters with the criminal justice system not only withdraw from, but also actively avoid interactions with government authorities of any kind . . . Instead of engaging in the political process by seeking out elected representatives, they opt out.”

Seen in this light, Bernie Sanders’s policies take on an impressive cast.

Medicare for All is good policy because it guarantees everyone health insurance and extinguishes a parasitic industry that hoovers up profits while denying sick people coverage. But it also tells every US resident they’re worthy of health care and that the quality of their coverage is bound up with the fortunes of others. The Green New Deal is good policy because we need massive investment to save the planet from climate catastrophe. But it also transforms people’s sense of what government action can accomplish and their own role in bringing that about.

Go down the list: felon enfranchisement, free college, student loan forgiveness, medical debt forgiveness — each plank in Sanders’s platform delivers benefits to people in a clear, undisguised way that can change their sense of what’s politically possible, who their allies are, and how powerful they are as social agents.

When Sanders says, “We should be investing in jobs and education, not more jails and incarceration,” he’s making a profound point about how the state should interact with poor and working-class people — and what we should expect of government. Government can do more than give you a tax cut or mete out discipline — it can guarantee you the basics for the good life.

But my point isn’t about Sanders, per se. The “policy feedback” school is important because it reminds us that policy construction isn’t neutral, and that we should push measures that boost the political power of workers and poor people while also binding together the middle and working class in a symbiotic left coalition.

With universal, transparent, generous policies, we can fashion what Robbie Nelson has called “engines of solidarity.” Workers in office parks and foundries, classrooms and kitchens, would all have a shared interest in protecting and expanding the welfare state. The formerly homeless wouldn’t be the object of means-tested charity, but instead the constituent elements of a political bloc defending social housing. The erstwhile felon wouldn’t return home only to be harassed and disenfranchised, but instead have the chance to go to college or vocational school for free, just like any other person.

For the ascendant socialist movement, pursuing radical reforms that shift power from those who have too much to those who have too little is an ethical imperative. It’s also one of the most realistic ways that we can win.