About 45 miles away from Amherst and 187 years ago, the small New Hampshire town of Peterborough voted to establish the first tax-supported public library in the United States. The Peterborough Town Library, which is still operational today, uses tax money to buy books and make them available to all. Public libraries, shelved with books, home to educational events and foundational to community, now span across America. And so can their fundamental structure: the collective funding of a collective good.
This structure is known as a universal program, and libraries are a common example. Universal programs take their name from the fact that they benefit everyone in society. Their most-prevalent opposite in the contemporary United States are means-tested programs, which only benefit people who fit a certain set of qualifications.
Apart from libraries, universal programs include public K-12 schools, Social Security and Medicare. Means-tested programs make up most of what is considered “welfare,” including the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC), housing assistance, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
At first glance, means tests seem to be a good idea — after all, the wealthy shouldn’t receive SNAP or the EITC. And once families are on their feet enough to provide for themselves, they shouldn’t receive welfare either. Right?
Not quite. This argument about “deserved-ness,” trotted out in defense of means tests whenever new government programs are proposed, is dangerous. Means-tested government benefits are less effective, more divisive and less stable than their universal counterparts.
Let’s take SNAP as an example. More commonly (and misleadingly) known as food stamps, SNAP is a federal and state partnership program that provides limited funds to low-income recipients each month to purchase food from certain stores. On its face, SNAP is a program that keeps people from starving. However, as a result of its means tests, it fails.
First of all, to obtain SNAP benefits, you must submit an application either online or on paper, depending on the state. The application requires a Social Security number and an address, so you must find a way to acquire those if you don’t have them. Then, you need to complete an in-person interview where you provide proof of eligibility. If you miss the interview, you can’t get benefits. If you can’t provide documentation of the claims on your application, you can’t get benefits. The application is so onerous that it takes a huge amount of effort to even get started.
Let’s assume that you’ve made it through the application process and that you’re able to receive benefits. Now, you must register for work recommended by the SNAP office to continue receiving benefits for longer than three months. If you can’t because of drug addiction, mental health issues or other conditions that make holding a job difficult, you’re out of luck. If you’re on strike protesting degrading working conditions, you’re ineligible. If you have over $2,250 in certain resources, like a car you use to drive to work, you’re ineligible. And if you start making enough money to put you above a certain benefit cutoff determined by each state, you’re ineligible.
Barring all that, you still need to reapply after a short amount of time to continue receiving benefits. And there’s one more big restriction: benefits can only be used for cold food not medicine, hot food, vitamins, toothpaste, soap, household products or anything else.
SNAP’s long and complicated application process is typical for government means-tested programs, and these processes serve to make them less effective. In 2011, only about 84 percent of eligible participants received SNAP benefits, according to David Ribar, an economist at the University of Melbourne. Fewer than 34 percent of eligible participants received TANF benefits at the same time, and other federal welfare programs fared about as well. Ribar’s report identified “onerous application processes, confusing rules [and] misinformation” as causes of low participation. Means tests requirements are often so hard to satisfy that families who deserve benefits go without.
Means tests also divide us from one another, separating us into those who receive government benefits and those who don’t. Ignoring the fact, for the moment, that the middle- and upper-classes receive billions of dollars in benefits each year through the tax code, this division only serves to distract us from real sources of scarcity. Our government is starved for cash but not because welfare programs cost too much. Welfare recipients aren’t the reason our government is in debt — tax cuts for the rich and non-existent corporate taxes are. Poverty persists only as long as we don’t care to alleviate it and instead prioritize wealthy, well-connected interests.
As a result of the divisions that means tests create in society, means-tested programs are more easily cut than universal programs, even when they are crucially important. Like SNAP and other means-tested benefits, universal programs like Social Security and Medicare were created to solve clear problems: high poverty rates and healthcare costs among the elderly. Since they’re given to everyone after a certain age, they’re wildly popular. Despite the very real (but not intractable) solvency problems associated with Social Security, its longevity is a good thing — without the stability provided by universality, it’s likely that we would revert back to having no institutional guarantees for the livelihoods of our seniors.
For example, look no farther than President Trump’s proposed changes to SNAP rules last year, which tightened food stamp eligibility. According to the Urban Institute, around 3.7 million people and 2.1 million households will lose SNAP benefits as a result of the changes. Since they don’t apply to everyone, means-tested programs are much easier to restrict year after year, starving our nation’s most vulnerable from the assistance they need to obtain basic necessities like food and housing.
Universal programs — which apply to everyone, have little to no paperwork and enjoy widespread support — aren’t subject to these problems. They have their own problems, of course; we severely underfund public education, for instance. However, by and large, the benefits enjoyed by universal programs far outweigh the costs they may impose. And many of these benefits actually reduce costs, since universal programs have no need to require extensive checks, interviews or re-applications.
Some would call for means-testing every proposed government program. Most notably, some Democratic presidential candidates want to means-test tuition-free public college and student debt forgiveness, providing these benefits to families with certain, arbitrary incomes. Like means-testing in SNAP, TANF and other government benefits, this is a fatal miscalculation. Means-testing is a great way to create a patchwork of benefits that are prohibitively hard to access and don’t help the very people who need it most, just as our current welfare system does. We should reject means tests on any new programs, opting instead for universal tuition-free public college and universal student debt forgiveness. And we should re-examine our existing welfare programs, particularly SNAP and move towards a more universal system all around.
Whenever you hear someone advocate for means tests, apply those tests to public libraries or public K-12 school. Should Peterborough restrict entrance to its library to only those who make less than a certain income? And if they had, do you think that library would still be around now? Should public schools kick kids out if their family’s finances stabilize?
If the answers are no, then we shouldn’t means test on proposed programs either.