Whenever policymakers argue over ways to lower the budget deficit, one of the most popular ideas on both sides of the aisle is “means testing” programs like Medicare or Social Security. Instead of cutting everybody’s benefits, the idea is to reduce them for the rich and middle classes while leaving them intact for the poor.
In theory, means-tested programs should be more efficient and progressive because they don’t spend money on those who can pay their own way. But one concern that dogs these proposals is that the programs will lose support and funding as soon as budgets get tight. As the saying often goes: “Programs for the poor are poor programs.”
Over the last several years, we’ve witnessed a high-profile example of that principle in action. Inadvertently, America’s higher education system has become a massive lab experiment, the results of which suggest that means testing social programs can ultimately hurt the very people it is meant to protect.