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Sorry Mayor Pete, Means-Testing Is Not Progressive

Universal programs build solidarity and are far more politically durable than means-tested programs. By going after free college, Pete Buttigieg is doing the bidding of the Right.

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to guests during a campaign stop at the YMCA on November 25, 2019 in Creston, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In a new campaign ad, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg takes aim at free college and argues that his plan — which would scrap public university tuition only for lower- and middle-income students — is superior. The South Bend, Indiana mayor makes two arguments for his means-tested proposal: 1) that it would be easier to get a majority of the country behind his plan, and 2) that his approach is better because it doesn’t pay for the tuition of “the kids of millionaires.”

So what should we make of Mayor Pete’s contentions? An obvious response is that the children of the wealthy are far more likely to go to private colleges and universities than public ones, and that their taxes would go up to fund this and other progressive proposals. Free college would hardly be a subsidy to the rich. A deeper question, though, is why Buttigieg thinks providing free public services to all is a bad idea in the first place. Isn’t that just good old-fashioned FDR liberalism?

But perhaps it’s too much to expect such explanations from a thirty-second ad. Instead, maybe it’s fairer to look at an editorial published earlier this month in the Washington Post endorsing Buttigieg’s plan.

In the piece, the editorial board claims Buttigieg’s proposal is actually “more progressive” than Bernie Sanders’s free college plan. According to the Post, Sanders’s proposal (as well as Elizabeth Warren’s) “would wastefully hand tuition subsidies to wealthy families who don’t need the help.” By means-testing his program, they argue, Buttigieg frees himself up to spend “some of the money he would raise from the 1% on other worthy causes, whereas Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren need new and different revenue-raisers — some of them implausible or economically risky — to fund their more expansive programs.”

Other Worthy Causes?

Let’s take the last argument first. First, it’s simply not the case that Mayor Pete’s opposition to completely universal public higher education is part of a trade-off that involves proposing bolder-than-Bernie plans on “other worthy causes.” On topics ranging from health care (where he supports a public option but regularly attacks Medicare for All) to climate change (where his plan falls considerably short of a full-employment Green New Deal), Buttigieg consistently advocates relatively moderate positions.

Even on another subarea of higher education policy, student debt forgiveness, Buttigieg is fairly stingy — and not just with middle-income-and-above people. The Post’s own article on Buttigieg’s plan reports that, unlike Warren (whose debt forgiveness approach looks a lot like Buttigieg’s college affordability scheme) or Sanders (who wants to cancel all student debt as a matter of principle), “So far, Buttigieg has only called for student debt forgiveness for people in ‘low-quality’ programs, such as many for-profit schools.”

Second, in trying to contrast Sanders’s and Warren’s “implausible or economically risky” financing mechanisms with Buttigieg’s presumably plausible and risk-free alternatives, the Post isn’t comparing like with like. Bernie Sanders, for example, goes into detail about financing in the higher education section of his campaign website, putting exact numbers on the tax he would impose on Wall Street transactions, estimating projected revenue, and pointing to several other countries that have successfully implemented his approach. The parallel section of Buttigieg’s website doesn’t mention revenue at all. In fact, in the eleven-page document covering this and other issues (which the Buttigieg campaign refers to as a “plan”), the word “tax” only appears in reference to tax breaks for low-income people.

The Post’s assumption that Mayor Pete has some more-prudent-and-plausible-than-Sanders way of paying isn’t grounded in anything the Buttigieg campaign has actually put in writing.

Is Means-Testing More Progressive?

The Post’s core claim, though — anticipating Buttigieg’s new attack on Bernie for wanting to pay for the higher education of “the kids of millionaires” — is that “targeting” help to those who need it most is “more progressive.”

“[W]e would argue that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s new education proposal is both more affordable and more progressive than the other, more expensive ones out there; indeed, more progressive because it is more affordable and better targeted. . .It is more progressive to target aid to those who require it, conserving federal resources to do the maximum good.”

The obvious way to test this idea would be to apply the Post’s reasoning to other areas of social spending. Right-wing Republicans have long argued that Social Security should be means-tested so payments aren’t “wasted” on those seniors who don’t really need it. Is their position “more progressive” than that of their liberal and leftists opponents? I suspect that most WaPo readers would be surprised to hear this.

What about public libraries? Should you have to produce a copy of your last tax return to get a free library card? (Perhaps higher-income borrowers could pay per-book rental fees, or carry a different card that came with monthly fees.) Should fire departments provide protection only to those who can’t afford to pay? How about K-12 public education? Should the “kids of millionaires” be allowed to go to public high schools?

Providing services for free only to those who “truly need them” reinforces the idea that individually paying for services is the default, and waving such payments is a way of “helping” those in need of a special handout. This stigmatizes recipients and invites conservative politicians to endlessly examine whether beneficiaries are really poor enough and morally deserving enough to receive it. (See everything from Ronald Reagan’s tall tales about Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” to more recent debates about SNAP card recipients using their “food stamps” to buy lobster.)

Making programs universal frames them as rights — something that everyone gets just by virtue of being a person. Whether we’re talking about rights like the right to free speech or the right to a K-12 public education, once a “right” becomes embedded in the social fabric, it’s far more politically dangerous for conservatives to openly try to take it away. Compare the way American Republicans gleefully advocate reversing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion with the way British Tories have to at least pretend to support maintaining the National Health Service.

No matter where the income line is drawn, means-testing almost always fuels resentment among those just above the threshold: “Why should I have to pay taxes so they can get this service?” This plays into the divide-and-conquer strategy of the Right. Universality builds solidarity and makes programs less politically vulnerable. That’s far more progressive.