Currently, the Democratic Party – both nationally and here in Maine – is engaged in a broad and serious debate about whether social welfare programs ought to be means-tested. Indeed, this debate isn’t just occurring within the Democratic Party; it’s happening amongst Republicans as well.

If you’re not familiar with the term, means-testing basically is having some sort of screening to determine whether you actually need governmental assistance or not. That’s a vast oversimplification of an enormously complex issue, but it’s a good starting point to define the terms of this debate.

The stimulus checks sent out during the pandemic last year – each round of them – were means-tested, for instance: Whether you got any money was based on your income. Social Security, by contrast – at least in its most basic form – is not means-tested: If you paid into the system, you end up getting benefits, regardless of how much you make. The stimulus checks, even though they were far different from Social Security, were not simply free money handed out to everyone – they were a government benefit that was based entirely on the prior year’s tax returns.

The vast majority of social welfare programs in this country are currently means-tested; Social Security is the exception rather than the norm. The real debate is usually focused on how thorough the means-testing is, where to draw the line, and on whom the burden is placed, rather than whether to do it all. The stimulus checks were far simpler than most programs, like the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) program, where those who need the benefits have to proactively apply and jump through a number of hoops to prove their eligibility, but they were still means-tested, albeit somewhat inadequately.

What shouldn’t be considered, though, is simply expanding government programs to cover everyone, regardless of whether they’re needy or want the assistance. Democrats have continually proposed this with Medicare and Medicaid – one of the growing rallying calls on the left has been “Medicare for all” – but it’s a misguided approach. Instead of expanding current programs by eliminating means-testing, they ought to be focused on creating new, limited programs that seek to help the most needy through effective means-testing. These would be more affordable and practical, and zero in on those who truly need assistance.

Part of the supposed appeal of simply eliminating means-testing and expanding assistance to everyone who might need help is that it could save money in the long run: There’s less funds wasted on overhead and administration. While that’s a fine theory, it’s always questionable whether the unnecessary expenses of providing financial help to those who don’t really need it makes up for the unnecessary bureaucratic expenses. It’s nice to think that it does, but until we actually implement such a program on a broad scale, we won’t really know for sure.

There have been some limited experiments in certain countries and local areas that have shown promise, to be sure, but none of them have been totally comprehensive. That’s one of the problems with proposing any new policy approach: It’s difficult to experiment, meaning that you won’t ever know whether it really works until you really try it on some level.

Another problem with eliminating means-testing is that it discourages more local, private-sector, community oriented solutions. Community-oriented solutions aren’t a theoretical proposal that could leave people more dependent on big government: They’ve been utilized successfully by governments of all sizes and scales all over the world.

The federal government ought to focus on expanding local assistance and helping it, rather than supplanting it. If we simply eliminate means-testing and help everyone, we discourage local solutions; if we focus governmental response on those whom local groups cannot help, we encourage them. That’s a solution that would truly save money without wasting it.

Rather than eliminating means-testing, we ought to reform it, shifting the burden of proof from those who need the assistance to the government providing it. We can streamline government programs to assist those who need it without wasting taxpayer money on either endless bureaucracy or on people who don’t need help. Instead of trying to eliminate all welfare or continually expand it to cover everyone, reasonable people ought to come together to figure out how to make it work best for the entire country.

Limited, government assistance that effectively helps the needy should be a goal for everyone, regardless of their ideology.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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