Conservative Democrats are insisting upon including means testing for key social programs in the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act — a practice Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) condemned on Sunday for creating unnecessary hurdles for people seeking government assistance.
“Means testing = more bureaucracy, red tape, and waste,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “That’s why programs where means testing gets implemented are less popular, not more popular. It’s also why many people who are eligible for means-tested programs still don’t get healthcare or help at all — it’s too hard.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) has been leading the charge for applying means testing to programs in the reconciliation bill. In a July memo that was largely secret until recently, Manchin highlighted his demands for the bill, saying that social spending must be tempered with “means testing guardrails/formulas on new spending,” “targeted spending caps” and “no additional handouts.”
Manchin has doubled down on his demands to limit social spending in recent weeks, publicly stating that he favors work requirements for some programs. “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving toward an entitlement mentality,” he said last week in a characteristically right-wing comment to reporters.
Many of the programs in the reconciliation bill already have a form of means testing; the child tax credit, for instance, has a household salary cap. But Manchin wants to lower that cap, limiting the program that helped cut child poverty by half during the pandemic.
Progressive advocates say that at best, means testing is a waste of time for poor families who rely on government programs to stay afloat. At worst, it can serve as a punishment for people experiencing poverty, or an outright barrier to accessing government aid.
“For those unfamiliar with the phrase, ‘means testing’ is the art of limiting the possible,” wrote MSNBC’s Hayes Brown. The easiest way to ensure that low-income students have access to school lunch, Brown continued, is to use federal funding to provide free lunch for all students at public schools. When the government limits the free lunches to only the kids who need it, the process becomes far more complicated for families to navigate — requiring a series of complex steps “just to make sure some kid whose parents make a bit too much money or who qualifies but never filled out the form doesn’t get access to the school-provided lunch.”
Means testing doesn’t just bar some people from accessing needed assistance — it can also further depress program recipients’ finances. For instance, asset limits associated with the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program have been shown to push recipients deeper into poverty, partly because the limits have not been updated for decades.
Ocasio-Cortez pointed out over the weekend that placing income and work limits on government programs isn’t even effective by conservative lawmakers’ own standards. “Even if you’re a person that fully believes in means testing, the US doesn’t even measure poverty accurately to use for a means test,” she wrote. “The U.S. measures poverty at 3x the cost of min food diet, assumes worker has stay at home spouse for childcare, and doesn’t factor cost of living.”
“This means there are likely a LOT more poor people in the US than we admit. Policymakers know this, so they try to compensate by drafting some federal policies at 150 percent of the federal poverty line, etc. But when the measure is SO nonsensical, even 150 percent of poverty line has little basis,” she continued, highlighting a bill she introduced in 2019 that would reformulate poverty line calculations.
Means testing has caused schisms between Democrats, partially because of debates over who qualifies as poor and who doesn’t. When conservative Democrats make it complicated for the people most in need to access resources, it can also erode public confidence in social programs.
Lawmakers like Manchin aren’t necessarily worried about what’s popular, however. Means testing is favored by deep-pocketed lobbyists who oppose social spending, largely because social programs that cast a wider net lead to more taxes on wealthy people and corporations. Time and time again, Manchin has demonstrated his loyalty to lobbyists and pushed for shrinking the reconciliation bill — and he is willing to make it harder for the public to access popular proposals to do so.