Online for MSNBC, Hayes Brown argues
For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “means testing” is the art of limiting the possible. Say you want to establish a government program to provide free lunches for students, which is proven to be especially beneficial for kids from low-income families. The easiest way to make it happen is to do just that: provide free lunches for all students at public schools through federal funding. Or you could provide lunches only to some students who are most in need. And to determine which students requires adding steps to the process.
That could look like requiring parents to fill out paperwork documenting their annual incomes and the numbers of children they have in school. It could involve having school districts apply a formula for the number of kids per household for every tax bracket to decide whether each student qualifies. Then you have to keep track of every kid in the system and account for every reduced-price or free lunch that is given out. Most likely, you’ll need all of those steps and more — just to make sure some kid whose parents make a bit too much money or who qualifies but never filled out the form doesn’t get access to the school-provided lunch.
It's not only the school lunch program. A year ago, Matt Bruenig found
When we look at the participation rates of means-tested programs in the US, we typically find that around one in five eligible people are not receiving the benefits they are owed.
The overall participation rate of the food stamp program is 85 percent and is only 75 percent for the working poor who likely have a harder time proving their eligibility to the welfare office. The participation rate of Medicaid is 94 percent for children, 80 percent for parents, and around 75 percent for childless adults. The participation rate of the Earned Income Tax Credit (and also presumably the Child Tax Credit) is 78 percent. The low participation in the EITC cuts the poverty-reducing effect of the program by around 33 percent, according to the Census Bureau, meaning that mainstream estimates of the EITC’s impact (e.g. those produced by CBPP) overstate the effectiveness of the program by at least 50 percent.
One "major problem with means testing," Jacobin has noted, "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. By contrast, Social Security and Medicare long have been called "the third rail of American politics." They are nearly politically unassailable because virtually everyone who lives long enough receives benefits from the programs. They assist not the poor, minorities, women, nor urban or rural, but almost everyone- a gift from us to us.
As the Build Back Better agenda is considered by Congress, progressives and other Democrats should hold onto the principle that universal programs are superior, politically, programmatically, and bureaucratically- to means testing programs