Opinion | Means testing makes policy less effective, not more

The bureaucracy involved with means testing welfare and other governmental benefits significantly decreases their effectiveness and reach.

Peyton Downing, Opinions Columnist

President Joe Biden has recently talked behind closed doors regarding the currently proposed infrastructure bill, stating that he would be willing to put certain provisions behind means testing to bring the cost down. Not only does this prevent more people from benefiting from aid they desperately need, but it may not even help in the long run.

Means testing is examining the financial state of individuals to see if they qualify for a given government benefit. It’s almost universally applied to things like welfare — food, housing, and medical insurance are all benefits that are means-tested.

The problem with means testing is two-fold. It puts a cap on what a family can receive before their benefits are suddenly removed and costs time and effort on the government’s side that could be better spent elsewhere.

The first part of the problem is that means-testing cuts off people who may still need that aid. People who rise above the cut-off point may stall due to their sudden loss of support, causing them to fall back below that line, and so on — a process known as a cycle of poverty.

It also creates a divide and stigma to those who are on it. Those who receive the benefits are described as lazy or unable to properly provide for themselves.

A close friend of mine’s father used to qualify for the support but refused to accept because he felt emasculated. He felt that he was a failure for needing someone else’s help — even if it was the government’s.

By making programs universal, we remove that stigma. People aren’t a failure because of these benefits — it’s the government doing what it should be doing, which is looking out for the best interest of its people.

Cutting these benefits certainly wouldn’t help either, contrary to conservative thought. Study after study shows that benefits, whether they be direct cash payments or otherwise, assist people and make their lives better. In fact, the longer a family is on benefits and the more stable those benefits are, the better the outcome for the family.

The other problem with means testing is the bureaucracy associated with it. It takes time and effort, both of which cost money, to ensure that people applying for benefits qualify for them and what the benefits can be used for.

Drug testing is one kind of means testing that, well not in effect everywhere, has been put forward to by conservatives numerous times, including here in Iowa. While drug testing does not inherently connect to one’s financial situation, its purpose is to ensure welfare benefits such as food stamps are sold and then used to purchase drugs.

However, the price of these programs far outweigh the gain the government receives from implementing them. It costs far more to drug test people than it does simply give them the benefit of the doubt.

The same, in my opinion, goes for restrictions on things like food stamps. The list of restrictions for what you can and cannot buy with WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, is absolutely absurd.

Among the specifications are certain types of milk, restrictions on the minimum nutritional benefits of foodstuffs, and regulations on what can and cannot be added to your tofu.

Means testing hurts people. It puts an upper limit on what people receive before their support structure is suddenly cut out from under them and creates a stigma around receiving benefits in the first place. Making these services universal would not only help to provide for millions of Americans, but it would remind us that the government works for us, for our benefit.

So don’t call to have means testing added on to new policies. That doesn’t make lawmaking better — it only makes lives worse.


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.