More on Pre-K: Go Big For the Right Reasons

I meant to comment earlier this week on a column by my friend and former colleague Ryan Cooper criticizing the primary congressional vehicle for Democratic messaging on pre-K education, a bill from Robert Casey setting up a matching grant for states that agree to create a voluntary system for kids from families with income below 200% of the federal poverty level.

I generally agree with Ryan’s argument that ultimately any pre-K program needs to be part of the K-12 public school system; offering it permanently via private vendors outside the public schools could have a pernicious effect on public education while inhibiting its development into a regular part of American life. I also tend to dislike, as does Ryan, anything billed as “block grants,” though if you look at the Casey bill it is reasonably categorical and doesn’t entirely mean “the states are in charge.” And finally, he and I agree there’s probably not any form of federal pre-K assistance Republicans can accept for the immediate future, so making the proposal small or decentralized or otherwise “conservative-friendly” will buy exactly zero GOP support (though I’m not fond of Ryan’s Overton-Window inspired allusion to Democrats “precompromising” on pre-K as though starting way over on the left will make the ultiimate compromise–which, as you may recall, ain’t happening anytime soon–more progressive).

I do have one serious quibble with Ryan’s political analysis of the proposal, though, which I’ll mention because it’s applicable to many issues beyond pre-K. Here’s his argument against means-tested benefits, which you hear all the time, especially from self-identified mega-progressives:

In an age of economic weakness, poor-only benefits face heightened suspicion and resentment — just compare how Republicans speak about food stamps (means-tested) to how they speak about Social Security (universal).

Sure, it helps the political salience of programs like Social Security and Medicare that they are universal, so everybody’s got a self-interest in continuing them. But the bigger reason these programs are thought of differently from food stamps or other means-tested benefits is that they’re perceived as earned benefits, partly because people pay into them with payroll taxes, partly because Medicare requires premium payments, and partly because they’re viewed as a reward for a lifetime of work. A universal pre-K benefit is not going to have that sort of panache, believe me. But this insight is more important when it comes to the extremely common suggestion that we market a single-payer health care system as “Medicare for all.” You know, Medicare is wildly popular, so making it universal should be wildly popular, too, right? Not necessarily. Giving Medicare benefits to people who haven’t been paying into the system their whole lives and who cannot pay premiums now will likely be considered turning Medicare into welfare by a lot of current beneficiaries, even if they continue to receive their same old benefits.

Before the next time you laugh at some yahoo who’s talking about protecting “my” Medicare or Social Security from government or the liberals–ha! ha! don’t they know it’s all from Big Government!–you might want to think about why said yahoos feel entitled to the benefits that others haven’t earned.

I know Ryan wasn’t talking about health care policy, but I’m going to take the opportunity to make this point every time I hear someone intone “poor people programs are poor programs” when a means test is suggested. It’s a cynical point of view that happens not to be very realistic. I favor going big on pre-K, too, but for the right reasons, not because I figure cutting wealthy people in on a social benefit will keep them from wanting to get rid of it.

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.