Implicit Means-Testing

by Will on October 7, 2010

In America, unlike many places, we insist on means-testing many of the public goods that the government provides: poor people can get them, wealthier people cannot. The result is that more of our public goods are poorly provided relative to other places, because poor people have little clout, while wealthy beneficiaries of public goods insist on competent provision of service. The result of that, in turn, is that many people have bad experiences dealing with public services, and conclude that Ronald Reagan was right and the government can never do anything satisfactorily. That phenomenon gets balanced somewhat by people having bad experiences with private monopolies who treat people even worse than public departments. But it’s nonethelessĀ regrettable.

For the last year, I’ve been taking courses at community colleges. These institutions are implicitly means-tested. You don’t actually have to be poor to get into them, but most takers are poor people whose complaints will go unanswered. Of the classes I’ve taken, a few have been instructed by men and women who are able instructors, persons of good will who could be teaching in more lucrative positions, but whose public-spiritedness keeps them trying to help society’s worst off. These people are inspirations to me, and we should thank and value them as much as we can. But for every one of them I’ve encountered, I’ve encountered two con men who pose as instructors and don’t actually instruct, calling it in and making my life frustrating, and then giving me a decent grade as a sort of wink.

Contrast this to the service you get if you go to the department of the Assessor or the Recorder. This bureaucratic experience will be surreally different. You will take a number, wait a minute or two, and then be seen by a friendly, competent person who wants to tell you Yes. People in these places will even bend the rules: if they didn’t, their bosses would get all sorts of calls from rich people bitching about poor service.

So means-testing is bad, implicit or explicit. We should try to eliminate it where that’s possible.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

WordWrestler October 7, 2010 at 7:03 pm

YES. This happens within categories of public service as well, of course. Libraries in poorer cities in the county have crap computers, fewer print resources, etc. Wealthy neighborhoods get shiny new buildings with dozens of computer terminals. Worse, in the poor branches we are usually much more authoritarian/maternalistic in enforcing policy, because the rich demand better (less equitable) service and will, as in one recent case, go to the Library Commission to demand and receive it. It’s a sick, sick system.


Will October 7, 2010 at 8:50 pm

You are very right. And it happens in business service too, just not as much.

The irony is that the Reaganite critique of public services — the government doesn’t do them well, so only the scum of society should be served by them — becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The conclusion that public services will be poor is what makes them poor, not the fact that they are government services. The Census — to cite one example of which I have much personal knowledge — employs smart people and talks to member of all classes, and its data is very, very high quality.


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