Mean-tested versus entitlements

by Wade Rathke
October 10, 2021

Pearl River    I hate being one of those “I told you so” people, but anyone listening knows we predicted the “deal” on the social services infrastructure package would come in around $2 trillion, if there’ a deal at all. I hate these arguments about whether programs should be “entitlements,” meaning everyone benefits, or targeted and means-tested to specific population segments, arguably the poor.

The problem with means-tested, as advocated by Senators Manchin and Kaine for example, is that state by state this has become MEAN-tested, rather than means-tested. The rules have been manipulated by many states, now surprisingly those with more conservative governors and legislatures, so that they are often just plain mean, becoming benefits for the fortunate ones, rather than any presumed beneficiaries. TANF, the Clinton-era Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has become so difficult for eligible families to access, that many no longer even bother to apply. It’s a system of “gotchas,” rather than gimmes. Worse, it is often these same states where the poorest families who most need the programs most, live!

I like the arguments that Senator Warren makes that universal child care should be seen more appropriately as universal pre-kindergarten. It’s hard to defend benefits for the wealthy, although that is exactly what the mortgage interest deduction is, and that’s the most expensive benefit that the US offers, and it’s definitely not going to the poor and not on the chopping block. I’m also sympathetic to Senator Sanders argument that dental and vision coverage is “justice,” not a gift. At the same time, when trying to cut the price tag, how do we defend a cap at a million dollars in annual income? Ratchet that down to $2 or $300,000 thousand and the net covers enough people to survive and can be expanded later, once enacted, if as popular as we predict.

The politics always favor more people covered than less, but a deal has to be made. Lobbyists for all sides are having a heyday. For them, this is a full employment project. Businesses all want their piece. Even SEIU, the union representing 700,000 home care workers did a poll to try to edge into the conversation as part of a slimmer package. That’s part of the problem for advocates. It’s the squeakiest wheels which will feel the grease in the final package. All the electeds will claim they expanded the safety net and benefited the most deserving, but it will be where troops are on the ground forcing their hands that offset the lobbyists greasing their palms, who will see money in the final deal.

The real deal is likely not to be universal, so we also need to make sure whatever passes isn’t MEAN-tested.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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