The Biden administration’s proposal is cynicism masquerading as populism — and it will enrage everyone and hurt the Democrats’ electoral chances
During the 2020 Democratic primary, Pete Buttigieg’s personal ambition led him to poison the conversation about education in America. Desperate for a contrast point with his rivals, the son of a private university professor aired ads blasting the idea of tuition-free college because he said it would make higher education “free even for the kids of millionaires.”
The attack line, borrowed from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, was cynicism masquerading as populism. It was an attempt to limit the financial and political benefits of a proposal to make college free. Worse, it was disguised as a brave stand against the oligarchs bankrolling Buttigieg’s campaign, even though it actually wasn’t – almost no rich scions would benefit from free college.
Buttigieg and copycats like Amy Klobuchar were pushing a larger lie. Call it the means-testing con – the idea that social programs should not be universal, and should instead only be available to those who fall below a certain income level. It is a concept eroding national unity and being carried forward by wealthy pundits and a Democratic party that has discarded the lessons of its own universalist triumphs like social security, Medicare and the GI Bill.
This week the Biden administration tore a page from Buttigieg’s book. The White House leaked that it is considering finally following through on Joe Biden
’s promise to cancel some student debt – but not the $50,000 pushed by congressional Democrats, and only for those below an income threshold.
In trial-ballooning the college debt relief proposal, the president is boosting the media-manufactured fiction that real, universal college debt relief would mostly help rich Ivy League kids – even though data from the Roosevelt Institute conclusively proves that canceling student debt “would provide more benefits to those with fewer economic resources and could play a critical role in addressing the racial wealth gap and building the Black middle class”.
As the report points out: “People from wealthy backgrounds (and their parents) rarely use student loans to pay for college.”
But setting aside how the media-driven discourse omits those inconvenient facts, what’s noteworthy here is the underlying principle.
This latest discussion of means-testing follows Biden and congressional Democrats pushing to substantially limit eligibility for Covid
-19 survival checks and the expanded child tax credit. Taken together, it suggests that Democrats’ zeal for means-testing is no anomaly – it is a deeply held ideology that is both dangerous for the party’s electoral prospects and for the country’s fraying social contract.
The superficial appeal of means-testing is obvious: it promises to prevent giving even more public money to rich people who don’t need it.
But in practice, means-testing is a way to take simple universal programs and make them complicated and inaccessible. Calculating exact income levels and then proving them for eligibility means reams of red tape for both the potential beneficiary and a government bureaucracy that must be created to process that paperwork.
Data from the food stamp and Medicaid programs illustrate how means-testing creates brutal time and administrative barriers to benefits, which reduce payouts to eligible populations. In the case of means-testing student debt relief, those barriers may end up wholly excluding large swaths of working-class debtors.
This is a feature, not a bug – it is means-testers’ unstated objective. They want to limit benefits for the working class, but not admit that’s their goal.
Universal programs like social security and Medicare were what we once defined as “society” or “civilization”. They may be derided as “entitlements”, but the reason they have (so far) survived for so long is because their universality makes them wildly successful in their missions and more difficult to demonize. Their universality also precludes austerians from otherizing and disparaging the programs’ recipients.
Means-testing destroys that potential unity. It may initially poll well, but it turns “entitlements” into complicated “welfare” programs only for certain groups, which then makes those programs less popular and makes the beneficiaries easy scapegoats for political opportunists. Think of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” trope vilifying recipients of means-tested food stamps.
Now sure, billionaires are eligible for social security and Medicare, and their kids are eligible for free K-12 education – and that aristocracy doesn’t need that help. But when those programs were created, we accepted that rich people being granted access to those programs along with everyone else was the relatively small price to pay for simplicity, universalism and the attendant national unity that comes with it.
Not surprisingly, Democrats’ creation of popular universalist programs coincided with the most electorally successful era in the party’s history.
Equally unsurprising: the shift to fake means-test populism has coincided with rising popular hatred of liberal technocrats and the Democratic party they control.
What is surprising is that Republicans may be starting to understand all this better than Democrats.
For instance, Donald Trump
’s signature spending legislation offered direct, non-means-tested aid to small businesses during the pandemic. The former president touted a plan to just pay hospital bills for Covid
patients who didn’t have coverage. The programs were hardly perfect, but they were straightforward, universal, relatively successful and extremely popular because they embodied a powerful principle: keep it simple, stupid.
When it comes to student debt relief, there’s a rare chance for Democrats to also embrace simplicity – and prevent Republicans from outflanking them.
More specifically, they can use the student debt crisis to finally return to their universalist roots – and they don’t have to skimp and provide merely $10,000 worth of relief.
Biden could simply send out a one-page letter to every student borrower telling them that their federal student debt is now $0.
Yes, Republican lawmakers would try to block it and affluent pundits would tweet-cry about it to each other.
But amid all that elite whining and couch-fainting, Democrats would be launching a battle against an immoral system of education debt – and directly helping 40 million voters ahead of a midterm election.
It’s so easy and simple – which is probably why they won’t do it.