Mean(s) Testing and Compassionate Conservatism

Most self-proclaimed conservatives who believe government has any legitimate role in alleviating poverty, believe that role must begin with means testing, that is, checking to make sure that any would-be recipient of government aid to the poor really is poor. They underline their case with horrifying references to “welfare queens” using food stamps to buy steak and lobster, and travelling to and from the welfare office in Cadillacs. The goal these compassionate conservatives claim to be aiming at is a reasonable one–let’s give scarce public resources only to the people who really need them. Even when public resources are more plentiful, they are still most effective when targeted to those most in need.

But the c.c.’s–who normally presume that all the consequences of any governmental program not aimed at killing the enemies of the people at home (police) or abroad (army) are unintended–seem to have lost their grip on this fundamental law as it applies to means testing. Means testing really does have unintended consequences. At least, one hopes they are unintended. (Oliver Stone probably thinks they are intended.)

First, the eligibility line for any means-tested program is always set at least a couple of notches below the income which would enable a person to purchase all of the goods and services supplied by such programs in the private sector. There is always a group of people in the middle, too poor for private health insurance but too rich for Medicaid, too poor to be able to afford a balanced diet on their own funds but too rich for food stamps, too poor to be able to afford the rent on a decent private-sector apartment large enough for the whole family but too rich for public housing, too poor to be able to afford a lawyer but too rich for Legal Aid. Naturally that group in the middle will direct their envy and anger, not upward at the legislative and regulatory bodies that set the eligibility standards, nor at the agencies that administer them, but at the people below them who do qualify. This too, we must presume, is unintended.

Second, the procedure for qualifying for such programs requires the applicant to supply humiliating and exhausting detail about his or her personal life, beginning of course with the public (or at least on-the-record) acknowledgment of being poor. Most of us would rather confess to having sex with an underage dead chicken than to poverty, these days. But the mere admission of poverty is never enough. Verification must be supplied: paycheck stubs, rent receipts, utility bills and so on. The official purpose of the ritual is to weed out ineligible applicants. But the effect is to weed out any of the eligible applicants who still retain any pride or still value their personal privacy. This mostly gets rid of applicants without dependents, since most of us will endure a lot more humiliation and intrusion to provide for our children and disabled or elderly relatives than for ourselves. Anyway, we know for a fact, and repeated studies have verified it, that nearly half of those eligible for governmental assistance to the poor either never apply for it, or drop out of the process in the very early stages. We have known it for well over 50 years. I’m with Oliver Stone on this one–we want it this way.

Third, once we have designated a program as being for “the poor” and no one else, no one else but the poor will have any interest in maintaining it, or administering it properly and effectively. Once a program has been labeled “for poor people only”, its days are numbered. Why should “we” pay for a program that benefits only “them”?

Most of us have lived with this situation so long that we respond almost reflexively, “But of course the people who need the programs can’t afford to pay for them–otherwise, why would they need them? And of course the people who pay for the programs don’t need them. The best we can do is appeal to their sense of generosity and charity. ” (We do that, of course, only after a concerted campaign to discredit those virtues.) But we literally cannot imagine any other way to distribute public benefits, except by putting the people who pay on one side of the Great Divide and the people who receive on the other, and making sure than never the twain shall meet.

Well, no, it’s not quite accurate to say we cannot imagine any other way. We have in our midst a program open to most citizens and residents of this great country regardless of their current resources, and paid for by almost all of us. It is the most popular government program in the history of this country. And it is currently under constant assault in a relentless effort to discredit, privatize, and ultimately destroy it precisely because, to most of us, until very recently, it was proof positive that government could do something useful in alleviating poverty without humiliating the beneficiaries of the program.

I am referring, of course, to Social Security. Until a decade ago, the closest thing to a means test for Social Security (or its younger brother, Medicare) was an earnings limit. Now, even that is long gone. And the compassionate conservatives–including even some “centrist” liberals–cannot stop fulminating at the thought that Bill Gates will someday be able to collect his $1,100.00 per month from the public treasury. Under current law, most of that $1,100.00 would actually be taxed away (although the value of Gates’ Medicare would not.) Most American senior citizens can live with that arrangement, because it spares them the necessity of confessing poverty and pleading for charity. But conservatives and “centrists” simply cannot swallow the idea of giving a public benefit to anyone without collecting the recipient’s dignity in return. Indeed, now that we have finally given up on the idea of privatizing Social Security, our main suggestion for “saving” it is to means-test it.

Most honest conservatives will come out and say that, regardless of where it comes from or what we call it, any aid to the poor from the non-poor is charity, and the poor should acknowledge that fact. Means-testing is one of the more effective ways of rubbing it in. Which might be acceptable, if we were willing to allow dignity to the recipients of our charity. If “poor” were not a four-letter word. If we did not, at heart, believe that all of us get what we deserve and deserve what we get. Or don’t get.

I prefer the Jewish tradition in its view of charity. To the extent that we have any resources, they come ultimately from the Holy One, Who makes all of us conduits for those resources. I like the approach of Maimonides, Writing in the 1200s in highly-urbanized Spain and Northern Africa, he is realistic, and perfectly willing to admit that there are phony beggars out there, people who claim needs they do not in fact have. The Holy One has allowed these fakers to exist, he tells us, to create a benefit of the doubt for people who refuse to give to beggars (Maimonides was realistic about those people, too.) If all the beggars out there were really destitute, he says, anyone who failed to give to one of them when s/he could afford to would be committing a grave sin. Since some of them are fakes, those who refuse to give are guilty only in proportion to the ratio of real beggars to phonies. Ultimately, he says, means-testing is the job of the Holy One.


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