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Mayor Pete Is Wrong — Free Public College Could Unite the Country

Universal public goods, such as Social Security, are widely popular. The same would likely be true for higher education.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks after the Democratic presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios on November 20, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia.

A new ad from the Pete Buttigieg campaign reignited a social media debate that first began when Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticized free public college for all in the November Democratic debate. Klobuchar had warned that universal higher education was bad because it could mean “sending rich kids to college for free.” Buttigieg’s ad replicates Klobuchar’s critique, but added that free public higher education for all would “[turn] off half the country.”

The thing is, it wouldn’t: Universal public goods, such as higher education, are widely popular. Universal programs are also far more resilient than income-capped programs, when it comes to withstanding reactionary forces like class resentment and racist backlash.

Both Klobuchar and Buttigieg’s criticisms of free public college include misleading spin. The “half the country” Buttigieg alleges would be turned off by free public college isn’t actually funding it. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both propose raising taxes on the wealthy as the funding source for free public college: Sanders with a tax on Wall Street trades, Warren with her Ultra-Millionaires Tax (which hits only 75,000 households).

Should free public college truly come to be, only 1.4 percent of the benefit would go to the children of millionaires and billionaires, Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal estimated. Even if, as a result, wealthy people sent their kids to public colleges at extremely high rates, this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. In fact, programs that are universal tend to have the highest polling. A November 2018 Pew poll showed 74 percent of Americans and 68 percent of Republicans said Social Security benefits should not be reduced in any way. And 83 percent of the public has a favorable view of Medicare. Meanwhile one recent experiment in universal benefits, free pre-K in New York City, has been praised as “smart politics” by Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of Bank Street College, as it makes the program less vulnerable to budget cuts.

Non-universal programs inevitably leave out people who weren’t aware of the benefit, who filled out the paperwork wrongly, who failed to jump through a procedural hoop or who just barely missed an income requirement. As an example, Buttigieg’s free-college-for-some plan leaves out some people who are not millionaires: The plan excludes households with joint incomes over $100,000, regardless of location or how large the household is.

Journalism professor Stephen Thrasher pointed out that Buttigieg’s plan also binds LGBTQ young adults (and young adults more generally) to their parents, which makes the family into “a locus of social control.” LGBTQ students with parents who shun them could lose their ability to access education, as there is an expected contribution by the family, even if the family refuses to provide it. All of these weaknesses are eliminated with a universal plan — which is simpler to operate and doesn’t require any enforcement or fraud investigations to ensure benefits aren’t going to those who are deliberately excluded.

Both New York and California had extensive free public college programs until the mid-1970s. In 1974, New York Times education editor Fred M. Hechinger predicted that public colleges charging tuition would breed resentment, and “threaten to turn higher education into an instigator of class warfare.” Because low-income Americans get a subsidy that middle-income Americans don’t, “middle‐class families are likely to react in anger and political vindictiveness.” This observation was prescient. It’s the programs that only give aid to a portion of society that have the lowest popularity, while universal programs like Medicaid and Social Security are extremely popular.

Meanwhile, U.S. residents are far more skeptical of programs that aim to help only the poor, such as food stamps (officially called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) or welfare (officially called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF). There’s a racist element to this skepticism: Research by sociologists Rachel Wetts and Robb Willer show that white people are, on average, much less likely to support welfare programs if they’re told Black people might benefit.

The racism inherent in white Americans’ attitudes toward benefit programs shows up in modern polling. SNAP fraud is extremely rare, according to experts, due to the numerous hoops applicants must jump through. Despite this, a staggering 83 percent of Trump voters wrongly believe benefit fraud in SNAP is either “very” or “somewhat” common, as do nearly 59 percent of U.S. adults. A January 2018 HuffPost/YouGov survey showed that 34 percent of white Americans believe that Black Americans benefit from food stamps the most. Racist scaremongering by conservative media likely helps drive these numbers, with the long-debunked but ever-enduring Reagan-era myth of the “welfare queen.” In reality, it’s white Americans who make up the largest portion of food stamp recipients at 36 percent. It’s non-college educated white adults, who make up much of the GOP’s base, who benefit the most from federal poverty reduction programs.

Racism plays a role in the declining support for free public education in the United States as well. Federal support for higher education in the United States began to diminish when non-whites tried to access the education benefits promised in the GI Bill. These benefits were meant to be universal but weren’t, as schools often rejected Black applicants and the disbursement of funds was subject to prejudice. That’s why it’s more important than ever that politicians on the left bring a full-throated defense of universal programs: They can “engage across class and create a shared sense of values,” as New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones put it. Universal programs can be another tool in the ongoing fight to undo the damage of centuries of racist policy. However, the GI Bill example demonstrates that to succeed, such programs must be coupled with regulations and enforcement in order to prevent prejudiced outcomes.

Social security and Medicaid have thus far withstood decades of attempts by conservatives and some liberals to privatize them or reduce them; the lasting popularity of the programs made that politically infeasible. This is why Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s argument a “GOP talking point,” because non-universal benefits lead to “cracks in the system.” Programs that allow everyone to access a public good are resilient. Settling for anything less than universal access lays an easy trap for centrists and conservatives alike to immediately gut any new program proposed by the next president. Free college for some is what would turn off “half the country.” To unite the country behind a policy that will improve people’s lives, make public college free for all.

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