The case against means testing

“There are some serious costs associated with means testing. Though they’re usually framed as ways of curbing government spending, means-tested benefits are often more expensive to provide, on average,than universal benefits, simply because of the administrative support needed to vet and process applicants.
 And then there’s the burden means testing puts on those in need. Take the applications for SNAP, or food aid, for example. The most complicated state programs require individuals to meet a specific income threshold and complete certain asset tests. Individuals need to show that they don’t currently make more than 130 percent of the poverty line, or $16,744 for an individual, and have assets worth more than $2,500 (a requirement that varies based on age). According to mRelief, a nonprofit that assists SNAP recipients, the average applicant needs to either fill out a 17-page form or participate in a 90-minute interview, in addition to providing as many as 10 documents about their assets. Even the prospect of this can push people away.”

According to Georgetown University political scientists Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan, the administrative costs for programs like SNAP, the family assistance program known as TANF, and the Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children can range from15 to 40 cents of each dollar of benefits distributed in the programs.That includes money used to interview people, check the documentation they provide, and ensure that their claims of need are valid.

In other words, even though the intention of means testing is to help people most in need, imposing strict qualification requirements can actually make it tougher for individuals who are eligible to get past the application process.

As Matt Bruenig writes for the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank, these administrative barriers have hurt uptake rates of programs like SNAP and Medicaid, none of which fully serve all the people who qualify for them”

“Additionally, researchers have found that means testing stigmatizes people who are eligible for these programs, further reducing participation in them and fomenting biases toward low-income people.”

“A pitfall that universal programs are able to avoid, too, is choosing a cutoff that fails to adequately estimate need. For instance, the income threshold for SNAP is $28,550 for a family of three.Because of this cap, people who make slightly more money than the cutoff are left out of the program — even if they could also use this support.”

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