The Democratic Debate in Des Moines: progressive candidates on means testing versus universality

The Democratic Debate in Des Moines: progressive candidates on means testing versus universality

Dana Chasin at 2020 Vision does a good job of encapsulating key issuesthat surface in the Democratic debates.

Let’s get this out first:  most listeners will admit that the debates seem both too long and too short, as mentioned on Stephen Henderson’s Detroit Today program this Wednesday 1/15 morning.  They are too short, because candidates are interrupted at the 30-second time limit and not allowed to develop nuanced, considered answers to questions.  They are too long, because they go on for 2 hours.  I’d add that they are problematic, because the media pundits have their own views of what creates energetic dialogue that makes good ‘copy’ for programming, versus the kinds of in-depth discussions about issues like climate change, health care, education, the Supreme Court, congressional oversight/checks and balances, tax policy, wealth inequality and income inequality, plutocracy and oligarchy, etc. that people want to hear.

One important distinction that Chasin notes for thinking about socio-economic programs is the distinction between means testing and universality.  A means-tested program is generally available to lower-income people and often phases out and is capped at some income level beyond which it is no available.  A universally offered program is one that is available to all, rich and poor alike.  So the Earned Income Tax Credit is a means-tested program that is capped (too low, in my view), and Social Security is a universally available program (though there is a graduated payout scale and the funding formula caps pay-ins to the program at a ridiculously low level that means the rich pay only a pittance into the program)


As Chasin notes also, the right tends to reject universally available programs as having unreasonably high costs and allowing for free-riders.  The left tends to favor universally available programs for ease of administration and–not noted by Chasin–for the collegiality and collaborativeness they can build in having rich and poor in a program together, where it cannot be dismissed as ‘mere’ welfare for the poor (which, as we know, often gets translated in the hands of the ultra wealthy like Mitt Romney into “handouts for ‘takers’ from ‘makers’)

Two points here about the two most progressive candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren:

  • “Sanders is the strongest proponent of universality. … Sanders has maintained support for universal healthcare (in the form of single payer, Medical-for-all), higher education, and social security expansion.” (quoting Chasin in a 2020 Vision emailing)
    • Quote from Sanders at the debate:  “My democratic socialism says healthcare is a human right.”

  • “Warren’s policy agenda includes programs that are both universal and means tested.  Warren’s healthcare and free college program are universal.  Her childcare proposal is means tested. … Warren stands apart from some of her rivals by providing explicit pay-fors, includer her two [per]cent wealth tax levied on the country’s wealthiest households.” (quoting Chasin in a 2020 Vision emailing)
    • Quote from Warren at the debate: “The lowliest millionaire that I would tax under this wealth tax would be paying about $19 million in the first year in taxes. If he wants to send his kid to public university, then I’m okay with that.”