The Pandemic Has Totally Undermined Any Argument for Means-Tested Policies

For decades, austerity-minded politicians have bashed universal programs by concern trolling about the danger that a handful of rich people would get them. The urgency of the pandemic is helping people realize just how inconsequential this hang-up is compared to the advantages of universal benefits.

People waiting outside a supermarket during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Fiona Goodall / Getty Images)

In the spring, shortly after the coronavirus pandemic led to a nationwide economic shutdown, the IRS sent $1,200 stimulus checks to roughly a hundred and sixty million people — so many that you might have gotten the impression that it was universal. In reality, this benefit was means-tested and excluded higher earners. Fine with me, you might be thinking, people who don’t need help shouldn’t get checks. 

Unfortunately, the stimulus also excluded undocumented immigrants and incarcerated people. On top of that, payments to tens of millions of people were either extremely slow or in some cases never arrived at all, because the eligibility verification process created bureaucratic hurdles. These exceptions demonstrate one of the big problems with means-tested social programs: usually, if the benefits are not universal, the people at the top of the income ladder are not the only ones left out.

Socialists often argue against means testing and for universal social programs instead. Our reasoning, simply put, is that making benefits automatic for every person fixes them as guaranteed entitlements, which makes sure the people who need them actually get them, and makes them harder to roll back.

When eligibility for benefits is conditional, all kinds of bad things happen, ranging from the intentional exclusion of whole (usually maligned and disempowered) demographics to huge numbers of otherwise-eligible people tripping over red tape and falling through the cracks. Another major problem with means testing is political: so long as there’s an income threshold, austerity-minded politicians will always try to lower it, leaving more people out as time goes on. In other words, targeted social programs make easy targets. For these reasons and others, socialists maintain that the upsides of guaranteeing social benefits to everybody outweigh the costs of including the wealthy.

For the last several decades, the majority of Republicans and Democrats alike have been almost uniformly averse to universal social programs, and the turn toward means testing has been a bipartisan effort. Recently however, and especially during the pandemic, cracks have appeared in the consensus. For example, during the Democratic Party presidential primary, centrist candidates took ritual aim at Bernie Sanders’s universal Medicare for All plan — but while Sanders lost the electoral contest, centrist arguments against his policy have also fallen short. More than six months into the coronavirus pandemic, 67 percent of all registered voters and 87 percent of Democrats say they support Medicare for All.

An article published on Friday in the New York Times offers yet more evidence that there’s been a pandemic-era shift in popular thinking about universal social programs (the seeds of which were sown, no doubt, by Sanders’s prominence over the last half-decade). Over the years, one of the of the most effective arguments against universal programs has been that they embed giveaways to the rich. This talking point is a sleight of hand, allowing pro-austerity politicians primarily concerned about keeping taxes low for their donor class and corporate allies to appear motivated by populist concerns instead.

The New York Times article, titled “Why Giving Food Stamps to the Rich Is Not a Terrible Idea” bluntly poses a very good question, one you didn’t hear outside of strictly left-wing circles before the pandemic. It evaluates the fact that some wealthy New York City parents of public school kids have received P-EBT, or crisis-relief food stamps. And it asks: so what?

Author Ginia Bellafante argues that the scale, simplicity, and comprehensiveness (its universality means it covers undocumented immigrants) of the P-EBT benefit is so valuable in this crisis that the upsides dwarf all theoretical concerns about the unfairness of wealthy people receiving an extra financial bump. Instead of handwringing about this, Bellafante simply recommends some good deeds the wealthy might do with the extra money, like donating comparable funds to poorer schools for pandemic safety — although, the piece underscores, they should also be advised that charity is no match for government programs funded by taxes.

If you’ve spent years banging on about the superiority of universal over means-tested programs and how charity is a poor substitute for mass social spending, like I have, you will be surprised to see this take in New York Times. We’re more accustomed to the voices from the center telling us, for example, that if we eliminate public university tuition this will give Donald Trump’s kids a free ride, a prospect so unconscionable that it renders inadmissible the whole notion of enshrining higher education as a universal right.

There’s no question that this new openness to our arguments is, on some level, the crisis talking. A quarter of New York City households with children report that they can’t always afford food because of the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown, and the urgency of the situation is altering people’s perceptions about what’s necessary and what matters.

All the same, it’s hard not to get our hopes up. Part of the architecture of capitalism is that truly wealthy people are a tiny minority of the population, and the focus on whether this minority gets a minor boost out of a universal program that would bring stability, security, and prosperity to the vast majority (and would be paid for by progressive taxes) has always been a distraction. It’s nice to see it dismissed for once. Let’s hope people don’t forget these lessons when the crisis is over.