Political Animal


April 01, 2013 5:15 PM Having It Both Ways on Means-Testing

By Ed Kilgore

Republicans are forever arguing that some of what they want in the way of “entitlement reform” involves means-testing (or in reality, greater means-testing) of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Many Democrats resist even talking about that, partly because of the longstanding belief that means-tested programs are harder to defend politically than universal programs that benefit everybody.

This perspective has always bugged me; it amounts to saying that “progressivism” is insupportable politically unless everybody’s cut in. But this is a good example of why the “poor people programs are poor programs” argument continues to have strength, per this fine report from Tim Noah at TNR:

[D]id you know that the federal government spends more money on welfare than it does on Social Security, or Medicare, or the military? Me neither, perhaps because it isn’t true. It’s the kind of hooey that the crankier, less-informed sort of conservative is all too ready to believe. Yet the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee has lately been spreading this meme, and a variation is included in Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. It’s part of a larger bait-and-switch that Republicans have been playing against Democrats, making it harder for both parties to agree on necessary spending cuts that don’t harm those in need.
The budget committee poobah is Senator Jeff Sessions. In October, Sessions put out a press release under the headline “Welfare Spending the Largest Item in the Federal Budget,” a claim repeated uncritically by Eric Bolling on “The Five,” a Fox News chat show, and on sites such as National Review and Human Events. An urban myth was born….
[Sessions] subscribes to an unrecognizably maximalist definition of “welfare,” one that includes every single federal program that’s means-tested. He includes Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, usually described as health care programs, which account for nearly half his total. He also includes Pell grants, job training programs, and various other functions that are “welfare” in roughly the same sense that all government spending is “socialism.” By stretching welfare’s meaning until it has almost none, Sessions is able to calculate the total welfare tab not at an underwhelming $96 billion, but at $746 billion, which is indeed more than the tab for Social Security, or Medicare, or defense. Then he adds in the state-funded part of these programs so he can say the total exceeds $1 trillion.

So we need more means-testing, Republicans say, but then means-tested programs are “welfare,” which means “takers” freeloading off the hard work of “makers.” That’s really having it both ways.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • martin on April 01, 2013 5:35 PM:

    Hosz 'bout not talking about means testing because we know that the party that wants to eliminate Medicare and Social Security is not interested in reform and improvement, only elimination and therefore cannot be trusted, much less negotiated with?

    They will do with the social safety net what they've done with abortion: throw up one hurdle after another until it is no longer available.

  • John on April 01, 2013 6:13 PM:

    So was this article in the pipeline before Tim Noah was fired, or is he back, or was he paid freelance for this?

    I know this isn't Romenesko, but I'd like to know.

  • bh on April 01, 2013 6:18 PM:

    Since this is the second substance-free shot you've taken at opponents of means testing, I'll just respond in kind: who gives a crap if it "bugs" you? Since when is that a valid political argument? Especially when it's prefacing a post that -- as you say yourself! -- contradicts it.

    And there's no reason to even see the politics as distasteful. Of course people will be more strongly supportive of a program that they see as helpful to themselves rather than one that operates as a charity for others. The history of American public policy gives every indication that that's how people act -- just look at the fates of social security vs. AFDC.

    Means-testing is garbage as policy. It would save a trivial amount of money. It would further erode a middle class that, by every indication we have, has done a woefully inadequate job of saving through private plans. And yes, it would undermine support for the program by putting it into the begging bowl with all the other weak clients that are -- this is what actually happens! -- perennially starved for funds.

    So the better question is, why is "openness" to a substantively terrible, politically unpopular idea so important to you?

  • Anonymous on April 01, 2013 9:02 PM:

    I'm all for most of the social welfare programs that we have in place but I also have a hard time disagreeing with my republican colleagues who are concerned about the culture of dependence that exists. So am I.

    I live in an area where many people who could work don't. I believe in these social programs because many of the people that don't work would like to - they can't find a job, or they were outsourced or downsized. Help for them and their families is humane and in a supposedly Christian nation, shouldn't be as controversial as it is. They need a hand up.

    But there are a great many who don't work because they don't have to - they get government provided health care and rent and food. They want, and get, a hand out.

    Societal issues are complex and a low education/low income culture for many reasons is difficult to break out of - but at another level, what happens to 'these people' is a direct and completely foreseeable consequence of their own poor choices.

    What's wrong with having a program that helps the middle class as well? The people who do the 'right' thing and pay for the poor and the rich alike, the shrinking middle class is paying for it all (while working more hours, having less job security and diminished retirement oportunities).

  • Shane Taylor on April 02, 2013 9:14 AM:

    Ed, I think you're criticizing the case for universal social insurance at its weakest. A better defense was made several years ago by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in terms of "the principle of strong reciprocity." I have yet to find a more compelling account for the differing levels of support for universal social insurance versus means-tested "welfare."

    Their take is in the section "Strong Reciprocity and the Revolt Against Welfare" here:


  • Fritz Strand on April 02, 2013 9:19 AM:

    Yes, SSN should be means tested - at the front end by lifting the cap. Tip of the hat to Sam Seder.

  • Epicurus on April 02, 2013 4:46 PM:

    Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions is an ignoramus, a Confederate apologist and an embarrassment to the Senate of the United States. Except in comparison to the likes of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul...I do grieve for the state of our Union. If know-nothings like these two represent the best the GOP can muster? I'm voting for someone else. Anyone else.