Having It Both Ways on Means-Testing

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.