December 7, 2023

it just works

a person's hand filling out an exam
photo caption: a person’s hand bubbling in a test with a pencil. means testing is unfair and discriminatory, unlike regular testing, which saved me from becoming a doctor. it was the organic chemistry exams, specifically. photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash.

“As president,” Kamala Harris announced in the throes of her presidential campaign. “I’ll establish a student loan debt forgiveness program,” she wrote. “For Pell Grant recipients,” she added. “Who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.”

tweet from Kamala Harris

Student loan forgiveness is a bold plan. It’s one that’s continued to make news more than two years into the Biden administration. Now-Vice President Harris proposed student loan forgiveness with a heap of means testing on top. Means testing limits benefits behind an often-arbitrary wall. Tearing down that wall ultimately does much more good than harm for people and society.

Means testing shows up all the time in government and non-profit programs. Income is the most common way that programs deny benefits to some but not others. If you or your family earns over a certain amount, you don’t qualify. This could apply for housing, welfare, food benefits, disability. There’s a sad joke about a disabled person refusing to pick up a penny off the ground. Why? Because if they were to pick it up, they would lose their benefits forever. Means testing could include requiring work hours or an ID to access public services.

why is means testing harmful?

Supporters of means testing do it for a few different reasons. It’s one way to ration services or funding that may be scarce. It can ensure that limited resources go to “the most deserving.” It’s often deployed to prevent so-called freeloaders from taking advantage of the system. In the long run, means testing makes programs worse.

Rationing services. Adding obstacles, intentional or not, makes it harder for people who need those services. Why? Fewer people show up in the data for who uses those programs. The true need could be much larger than the program reports and we wouldn’t know it.

Focus on the most deserving. People who can’t afford food will still avoid their local food pantry. Why? It’s easy to think of services like a food pantry as being for “people who really deserve it.” Our bootstrap society looks down on people who need help from their community. This is especially true for Black and brown families facing white supremacist stereotypes. Means testing creates stigma that lingers on programs funded for the common good.

Reject the “freeloaders.” Unemployment and welfare programs suffer from complex bureaucracy and needless paperwork. In a way, that complexity weeds out qualified and deserving applicants on purpose. If you hide your benefits behind a maze, you only have to give them to people who make it through. But that complexity often costs more than the benefits are worth. Florida was famous for drug testing their welfare recipients. The drug tests cost more than the savings from kicking drug users off the program. And even if it had saved them money, who cares? Drug users still need food and benefits to live! Their families don’t deserve to lose support because of a punitive and moralizing state.

no testing, no means

Build programs with universal benefits. Kamala Harris’ tweet cut benefits from people who might otherwise support her program. Universal programs are less confusing for the average person. Social programs for food, housing, or welfare help build a happy, functioning society. Universal programs aren’t new, they’re wildly popular. K-12 education, social security, and medicare, are programs that just work. The only danger to their success is when politicians try to gut them for the sake of tax cuts or military spending.

There’s something else about means testing that I have to address. We should not think about people who need help as a problem that we must solve as cheaply as possible. Every person deserves their humanity, always. I would rather someone get away with something they didn’t deserve than deny a person what they need.

There’s this idea pervasive in society that we only have a certain amount of money to spend on human needs. For people in power, our budgets are limitless for things they care about but tight for the things they don’t. Universal programs just work. People understand them. People deserve the care and compassion they provide. They deserve it even if they don’t meet the requirements we force them to provide. No amount of means testing is worth the cost of our shared humanity.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]