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Means Testing: Sanders vs. Warren on the Single Most Important Policy Idea for Progressive Success

Basing eligibility on wealth or income level is phony progressivism and a crucial tactic promoted by the right to eliminate social welfare programs that could benefit the entire population and the common good.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, left, and Bernie Sanders speak at the NALEO Candidate Forum in Miami, Fla., on June 21, 2019. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, left, and Bernie Sanders speak at the NALEO Candidate Forum in Miami, Fla., on June 21, 2019. (Photo: Joe Skipper/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals ranging from Medicare For All and abolishing student and medical debt to free college tuition and even the right to vote are presented as universal rights and programs. They are provided to everyone with no exceptions. The record shows that this is the basis of viable social programs in a democracy. It is the reason the two most popular and successful federal government programs in the United States—Social Security and Medicare—have been impossible for the right to defeat, even though they have been trying to do so since the moment those programs were created in the 1930s and 1960s respectively.

"Note that it is almost always the wealthy and privileged and very rarely the poor or working-class that drive the push for means testing. That alone should demonstrate how phony this is as a progressive issue."

It is standard procedure for most Democratic candidates to support Bernie style social programs in theory—or at least some of them—but then to insert the caveat that “of course, rich people or even people above the poverty line should not get them for free because they can afford to pay for them out of their own pockets.” It sounds very fair and progressive, a blow against crony capitalism and directing government money to the undeserving rich. It is a staple line regarding the student debt plan of Elizabeth Warren, for example, and is roundly approved by the punditocracy. It is the mark of a “serious” candidate. It is called “means testing.”

But means testing is a phony progressivism and a crucial tactic promoted by the right to eliminate social welfare programs that could benefit the population. We can understand why corporate Democrats like Biden or Buttigieg or Harris advocate means testing; the corporate wing of the Democratic Party warmed to means testing in the 1980s and it began to be embraced as a legitimate device in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. It is now a common approach for that crowd.

So when someone as ostensibly progressive as Warren does the same it demonstrates just how pervasive right-wing ideology has been internalized in our politics.

Why do I call this a right-wing idea? Because as soon as means-testing is accepted on principle and introduced for a program, it begs the logical question of why not extend it to other similar social programs? So if means testing free public college tuition is such a great idea, then why not have well-to-do parents pay tuition for their children in public high schools and middle schools and elementary schools?  Why not bill only the rich when they drive on any public roads or use public libraries or parks or restrooms? Why not charge them for using the police or fire departments? Where exactly do you draw the line? That is a slippery slope toward privatization and elimination of government functions.

Why is that the case? Because when programs are universal it is much harder for the enemies of those programs to attack them as welfare giveaways to the poor, and an unfair burden on those who are more successful. Note that it is almost always the wealthy and privileged and very rarely the poor or working-class that drive the push for means testing. That alone should demonstrate how phony this is as a progressive issue.

The introduction of means testing creates a layer of bureaucracy to monitor who is eligible and ineligible for the social program. It produces a completely useless and unnecessary bureaucracy to eliminate fraud. It drives up the costs of the program and people become infuriated having to fill out forms and prove they are eligible. It is as pleasurable as dealing with a health insurance company or getting a root canal worked on by your dentist. This too plays directly into the hands of those who wish to establish that progressive government programs are inherently flawed, inefficient and incapable of being successful. Better to privatize and turn everything over to profit-seeking corporations in the marketplace.

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Means testing also means routine humiliation for those who must prove their destitution in order to qualify for the public good.

So how does a society have universal social programs without means testing that do not give the wealthy unfair privileges? That’s easy. Through rigorous progressive taxation, including wealth taxes, and an end to the income cap on social security taxes. If the tax code is truly progressive, then, in combination with universal social programs, there is the foundation of a more humane, egalitarian, democratic and happier society. Ironically, research shows that rich people are far happier living in more egalitarian societies. Not that much fun, I guess, to live in an armed compound to avoid the masses.

This is why all the great social democratic programs in Scandinavia and around the world are usually universal. It is why Social Security and Medicare are universal. And it is why the countries with the most effective and pervasive universal social programs tend to have the most progressive tax systems and are generally ranked as the world’s best democracies.

"If the tax code is truly progressive, then, in combination with universal social programs, there is the foundation of a more humane, egalitarian, democratic and happier society. Ironically, research shows that rich people are far happier living in more egalitarian societies."

To his immense credit, Bernie Sanders gets all this. As Bernie states plainly: “I happen to believe in universality.” As the reporter Ryan Cooper puts it: “The road to hell is paved with means-testing.”

Elizabeth Warren has been a disappointment with regard to means testing. She has opened the door for means testing with her student debt plan, and with this gesture Warren has signaled to corporate Democrats that they can work with her on social policies and she should not be feared. Combined with her recent waffling on her commitment to single-payer and Bernie’s Medicare For All bill—which she co-sponsored!—this should be an enormous red flag for voters seeking substantive change.

To her credit, Warren recently backed down from her earlier position that she would accept corporate money in the general election campaign were she to win the Democratic nomination for president, because she saw how hypocritical it made her rejection of such money in the primary season seem. Warren now needs to formally and loudly back down from her embrace of “means testing” for social programs. The general rule in politics is that you usually see the very most progressive side of a candidate during an election campaign, and it only gets worse once the votes are cast and the office door is shut and elites return to their usual privileged access. So this is not a minor issue; it pretty much tells voters how serious she is about representing the needs of the people, not the powerful.

Robert McChesney

Robert McChesney

Robert McChesney is research professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has written several books on media and politics,  including (with John Nichols) People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy (Nation Books); Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (with John Nichols); Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy; The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (with John Nichols), Rich Media, Poor Democracy, The Political Economy of the Media, and Problem with the Media: US Communication Politics in the 21st Century. He is also co-founder of the media reform group Free Press.

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