Courtney: The case against means testing

Why politicians and voters alike need to resist the urge to means test.


by Zach Courtney

As I’ve had a column with the Daily for a while, tweet often and now co-host a podcast at the Daily, my political views are far from secret. First, the U.S. government spends far too much on the military and far too little on climate change. More notably, though, I’m an advocate for universal healthcare and a universal basic income (UBI). The word they share in common — universal — always raises eyebrows. The questions that follow are usually pretty predictable.

“Should we really be giving Bill Gates $1,000 a month?”

“Should someone who doesn’t work really get free healthcare?”

These questions are loaded enough that they could be asked in a Democratic primary, but they’re worth discussing. In short, the answer to both — and any other hypothetical that comes up — is yes.

The term most commonly used with only giving government assistance to some — usually based on income or work status — is means testing. If the title of this column wasn’t clear enough, I’m against it. Anyone who worries about the growing gap between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else should be against means testing, too.

This might seem contradictory. If I’m worried about inequality, why the heck would I want to give Jeff Bezos another $1,000 every month?

One word: efficiency. It’s far more efficient to simply give Jeff Bezos the benefit (whether it be a child tax credit, UBI, stimulus check, free college, universal healthcare or something else) and have higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy than it is to not give Bezos the benefit and have lower taxes on the ultra-wealthy.

Means testing programs leave more room for bureaucracies to screw up, and if bureaucracies are good at anything it’s screwing up. The stimulus checks are a great example. Though I’m a proponent of cash benefits, means testing meant that checks were quite slow to go out to many Americans.

The same situation is happening with the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 4 million kids — $13 billion per month — could be slipping through the cracks as the IRS runs into trouble effectively executing the means-tested checks. These problems wouldn’t happen (or would be far less frequent) if the benefit was simply given to everyone. Yes, even Jeff Bezos. What’s the bigger problem: giving Jeff Bezos a monthly child tax credit, or not giving a monthly child tax credit to millions that need it? We can deal with giving Bezos the benefit later by raising his taxes.

“But Zach, we struggle with taxing Bezos and billionaires in general!”

I agree. That’s a problem in and of itself. A value-added tax (VAT) as proposed by Andrew Yang or a wealth tax as proposed by Sen. Warren (D-MA) would go a long way toward combating this problem.

Next is the boost in popularity. Simply put, universal programs are more popular and harder to cut. Think Medicare, Social Security and public high schools. They’re all very popular. Few argue these should be cut, and the people that argue they should be cut are not only bad policymakers, they’re also bad politicians. Call me a radical, but politicians should aim to do popular things, right? That means universal programs. Don’t means test the CTC, free community college or other benefits. Unless you want them to be more ineffective and unpopular, that is.

I wish the conservative Democrats in Congress like Sen. Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Sinema (D-AZ) would read this column, but I’m also a realist. They aren’t my target audience. My target is to change what people recognize as fiscally responsible. Is it really fiscally responsible to continue to means test the hell out of any program that might be good? No, it’s not. Quite the opposite is true. Means testing is like hiring someone to put a roof over your house, knowing full well there will still be leaks in the roof after they finish. It seems pretty dumb to me.

After reading this, I hope to have changed some minds. Whether you’re a fiscal conservative or a socialist, quit means testing for government programs.

I rest my case.