Means-Testing Has Nothing to Do With “Getting Help to Those Who Need It Most”

Lawmakers and wonks who insist on means-testing every government program like to posture as champions of the poor and downtrodden. But the fake Robin Hood act is just a cover for their deep-seated suspicion of the welfare state.

A person walks by a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn which has seen an upsurge of coronavirus patients, on April 3, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Some kinds of political hypocrisy are so common they can more or less be taken for granted. The most obvious example is anything to do with the deficit: long a favored bogeyman among politicians who insist that the cupboard is bare whenever a new social program is debated but have never seen a Pentagon budget they thought too large or met a tax cut they didn’t like. The same thing can be said about universal programs and poverty relief, two policy areas that inevitably prompt every billionaire-funded think tank or congressperson with a corporate CV to reinvent themselves as an adversary of the wealthy and a champion of the downtrodden.

Crying foul in such cases, though certainly warranted, can only take you so far — the hypocrisy being so blatant that identifying it is often of limited use. Dig a bit deeper, in fact, and you tend to discover that a kind of twisted ideological consistency is actually at play, i.e., that our hypothetical lawmaker is perfectly fine with public money being shoveled into the coffers of Lockheed Martin but is deeply offended by the idea of a welfare check going out to some prole who doesn’t deserve it. There’s no overriding animus, in other words, against taxation or spending to be called out and exposed. The hypocrisy may be there, but its function is to serve as window dressing for something worse; it is more artifice than incoherence.

Which brings us to the current phony war around the COVID-19 relief checks that prominent Democrats absolutely assured everyone would be out the door in record time once they took control of the Senate. Political rhetoric having already been stretched to the breaking point when it comes to the actual size of the payments, a coalition of conservative Democrats and wonks is now determined to compromise the policy further: reducing the income eligibility ceiling from the originally proposed $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples to $50,000 and $100,000, respectively.

For what it’s worth, even the original proposal is nowhere near adequate (given the scale and length of the pandemic-induced economic crisis, Congress should really be legislating monthly payments). Nevertheless, the current attempt to whittle down inadequate relief even further is a powerful case study in the persistence of means-testing in the DC political imagination — and the disingenuous arguments that are invariably made in its favor.

Even on its face, the wonk case for lowering the income threshold makes very little sense. As Andrew Perez and Walker Bragman explain, Congress will probably have to use 2019 tax filings to calculate prospective recipients’ earnings — meaning that someone who made $50,001 the year before last and hasn’t worked for months would almost certainly be excluded. By the same token, a person who made $70,000 the year before last may not have had anything like that income in 2020 and could probably benefit a great deal from a cash payment. As they further explain, things were hardly peachy before the pandemic hit:

While lower-income households have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, census data suggests that Americans across all income levels have been hurt. For example: 45 percent of households earning between $50,000 and $150,000 reported experiencing a loss of employment income since March 2020. Even before the pandemic, 40 percent of American adults were struggling to afford at least one basic necessity. A stunning 78 percent of full-time workers, including almost 10 percent of those earning $100,000 per year, were living paycheck to paycheck.

All this is germane given how opponents of the original relief proposal have decided to justify their argument. Right-leaning Democratic senator Joe Manchin, for example, says he’s worried about money going to rich people who don’t need it. Steven Rattner, who helps gazillionaire Michael Bloomberg manage his money, made a similar case on MSNBC last week, insisting that payments must go to “people who actually need the money.” Like-minded arguments for further means-testing of the checks have elsewhere been made by neoliberal hedge fund veteran Larry Summers and the editorial boards of at least two media companies with billionaire owners.

As usual, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around here. Senator Susan Collins, who together with Manchin sponsored an amendment designed to ensure that “upper-income taxpayers are not eligible” for relief checks, has in the past had no problem with slashing wealthy people’s taxes. It’s also more than a little rich (if you’ll forgive the expression) to see so many personally well-off and plutocrat-adjacent figures suddenly feign concern for the most vulnerable people in American society — and express disgust that the feds might inadvertently send a check to someone who doesn’t need it (which is basically Congress’s MO much of the time).

Nevertheless, the latest Washington crusade in favor of means-testing is probably a lot less related to any of these arguments than it is to a more generalized animus toward the very idea of government relief. Though nowhere close to adequate, the first round of cash payments that went out early in the pandemic quite literally prevented a catastrophic spike in poverty. In a healthier political culture, that would probably be an outcome most lawmakers would celebrate and seek to build upon in future legislation. In the current one, which tends to reject all but the bleakest conception of government assistance, it is more likely to be perceived as a threat.

Neoliberal ideologues have long embraced means-testing because they favor a bare-bones welfare state where technocratically administered crumbs take the place of robust social programs available to all — crumbs typically so subject to different eligibility criteria that plenty of poor people can’t even access them or have to wade through a sea of paperwork in order to qualify. But whether we’re discussing health care or the distribution of urgently needed cash relief during a pandemic, the simple truth is that less means-testing and more relief is always the better alternative if the goal is actually to get help to those who need it the most. No one put it better than newly elected Representative Mondaire Jones, who recently remarked: “Means-testing is a great way to ensure [that] a public program is both ineffective and politically unpopular.”

For those in favor of it, that’s precisely the point.