Means testing kills poor people.

Means testing is a tool used by the privileged to hold less-privileged hostage, in order to get petty revenge on the more-privileged.

This post contains my views about the evils of means testing, with some additional thoughts and sources from others.


These resources were created by Activist #MMT, the podcast (Twitter, Facebook, web, please consider becoming a monthly patron). This post was last updated May 12, 2021.

Disclaimer: I am a layperson who has studied MMT since February of 2018. I’m not an economist or academic and I don’t speak for the MMT project. The information in this post is my best understanding but I don’t assert it to be perfectly accurate. In order to ensure accuracy, you should rely on the expert sources linked throughout. If you have feedback to improve this post, please get in touch.

My take

Fighting to prevent the rich from getting what should be a universal benefit kills poor people.

Delaying and haggling over checks in order to ensure the rich don’t get them causes orders of magnitude more death and suffering for the poor, than in preventing the further luxury of the rich. (Do you really think billionaires would celebrate were a $2,000 check to arrive in their mailbox???)

Also, means testing to prevent the rich from getting some pittance of a benefit (from their perspective) forces the poor to prove they deserve that benefit. Also an inexcusable thing to do in this crisis.

How many poor people do you hear making the argument, “No! I don’t want what I desperately need until I’m convinced a billionaire won’t also get it!” None. This is an argument of the privileged who are ignoring the mass suffering going on all around them.

Means testing is nothing more than the privileged holding all poor people hostage in order to get petty revenge on those more privileged than themselves.

People are dying right now. Let’s stop screwing around and help them.

(Note the delay is caused not just while the means testing is underway, but especially during the debate over who should and who should not get them. In other words, the poor having to prove they meet some threshold is part of the delay, but more of it is during the process of deciding on what that threshold should be.)

From the 1998 paper by Robert Eisner, Save Social Security from Its Saviors

(Quoted by Stephanie Kelton in this tweet.)

Some, like Pete Peterson and his Concord Coalition, urge “means testing,” suggesting that the rich – and indeed the oly moderately well off – be denied some or all of the benefits currently provided. Peterson and others of the super-rich say that they would gladly give up what they get to help save the system.

But this kind of generosity is more likely to kill it. […] Further reduction of benefits for the middle class and those at the top would convey the notion that Social Security is just for the poor, another form of “welfare.” This would go a long way to destroy the political support for this almost universal and probably most popular and most successful economic program in our history.

From Rohan Grey, in this tweet thread

Responding to: “Just for clarification: do you want checks for $2k to people making over $160k? What’s the policy consideration behind that other than expediency?”

A couple of things:

  1. Any attempt to impose means testing at the outset is going to inevitably hurt lower income folks, undocumented folks etc. Making it universal-by-which-we-mean-universal is important for simplicity of universal distribution.
  2. The way to deal with the inequality-exacerbating distributional impacts is on the back end, through taxes, which given the relief check is framed as a tax credit is easy enough to administer and doesnt fall into the trap of using 2020 incomes or whatever which aren’t necessarily a good heuristic.
  3. The pandemic response, like the GFC beforehand, has had massive effects on inequality and overall living standards beyond just the $2k check, and focusing on making sure each individual program is ‘inequality-neutral’ is missing the forest for the trees. We need a massive reckoning that goes way beyond who gets the checks, which is why the #ABCAct proposal included this provision:

    After the termination of the emergency declared on March 13, 2020, by President under section 501(b) of the Robert Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assist23 ance Act (42 U.S.C. 5191(b)) with respect to the COVID–19 pandemic, the Secretary shall establish an independent Commission to—
    (1) investigate and ascertain the short-term and long-term impact of emergency relief measures, including those included in this Act, on overall levels and rates of increase of income and wealth inequality in the United States; and
    (2) identify and propose a comprehensive set of legislative and policy responses to address such impacts, including progressive tax reform as well as the enactment of new Federal programs and emergency response practices to preemptively prevent such out11 comes from occurring in the event of future similar crises or emergencies.

Means testing: thoughts from others

Means testing is spending 50% of resources on harassing 100% of those in need out of fear that 1% won’t really deserve it.

– From this May 2021 tweet by sublightmonster.

The labor shortage is real folks. I am offering $5/day for help with the yard and house and have gotten 0 responses.
It must have something to do with all the big bucks people are taking home from unemployment benefits.

– From this tweet by Bill Peeples.

Overwhelming statistical evidence proves that what means testing actually does is prevent those (the poorest & the most marginalized, communities of color, and non-English speaking people, single-mom families with young children) who are eligible from getting the help they need.

– From this March 2021 tweet by Kshama Sawant.

Exactly what I have been saying everyday. Instead of mean testing BEFORE sending the money, do the means testing after, at tax time. More efficient and quicker that way.

– From this February 2021 tweet by Nathan Becker.

(Here is a link to the tweet screenshot at the top of this post, and the one it responds to.)