Democrats Need to Forget About Means Testing

The coronavirus will devastate the American economy. Markets have been in freefall for the better part of two weeks. As businesses shut down across the country and layoffs begin, it’s clear that most Americans will need economic assistance to pay for basic necessities like food and housing.

Now is the perfect time for Democrats to step up and assert themselves as the party that will fight to get Americans the help they need. But after the White House kneecapped the House Democrats’ coronavirus relief bill (which was then rightfully panned for providing inadequate benefits), a familiar Republican stepped in on Monday.

Mitt Romney’s plan is basic and straightforward. It’s also woefully insufficient and cynical. But it could work to make Republicans look more efficient and actionable than Democrats.

There are several Democratic proposals that would provide more economic relief for Americans over time. California senator and former presidential candidate Kamala Harris re-upped her LIFT Act from 2018, which would give almost every American a tax credit up to $500 per month. Senators Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, and Sherrod Brown proposed a plan that could give Americans up to $4,500 in economic relief per person. And Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, in extreme corporate Democratic fashion, explained on Twitter that he and Senate Dems would propose “low-interest loans and other forms of financial assistance” for cash-strapped small businesses.

But all those Democratic plans involve means testing for income, which is woefully inefficient. Universal programs are easier to sell politically and are stronger since more beneficiaries can sound off and when those benefits are slashed. “Make a program part of the fundamental infrastructure of life for everyone,” The Week‘s Ryan Cooper wrote about Social Security in 2017, “and it will generally be high-quality.” It doesn’t matter that the coronavirus is a freak event the likes of which we haven’t seen. Means testing for relief in the midst of a global crisis adds unnecessary inefficiency.

So it’s no surprise why Romney’s $1,000 plan gained such quick notoriety and created frustration among Left Twitter. There are no hoops to jump through or paperwork to fill out in order to qualify. It’s easy to understand and sell to people—something Democrats, amidst all their fumbling, still haven’t grasped.

Romney’s plan really represents yet another opportunity for the GOP to cynically become the party of economic populism. By directly speaking to Americans’ needs, Republicans can easily paint Democrats as the party of bureaucracy, forcing average people to bend over backward for sorely needed relief. As of this writing, Sen. Bernie Sanders is the only Democrat who has proposed a non-means testing plan that would provide American households with $2,000 per month for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, as well as halting student loan payments and several other relief efforts.

Sanders’ proposals are a good jumping-off point for Democrats. But until they realize they’re being outmaneuvered politically over and over again, nothing about what they push forward will make a difference.