Writer’s Note, 2/17/21: This article was first published in July of 2020, and the podcast interview attached was recorded during the summer of 2019. Given President Biden’s recent rejection of the $50,000 debt relief proposal put forth by progressive, and even some moderate, Democrats, I thought the article and the podcast were both worth re-posting.
by Keaton Weiss (including an interview with Meagan Day)
Last summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meagan Day, staff writer at Jacobin Magazine, who had just written a fantastic piece entitled “Why We Need Free College For Everyone – Even Rich People.” The article outlines how Democrats’ seemingly rational preference for means-tested social programs over universal ones is actually a cruel trick they like to play on their own base.
The case for means-tested tuition assistance is essentially that upper-class people don’t need help paying for college, and so they shouldn’t receive it. At first glance, this seems rather straightforward. What could be wrong with that?
But as the article continues, Day thoroughly and convincingly debunks this idea by demonstrating how means-testing, while disguised as an exercise in class consciousness, actually undermines class solidarity and upholds capitalist neoliberal hegemony.
She points out that means-tested programs are cheaper than universal ones, and so, right from the start, this saves the capitalist class (who, conveniently, is also the donor class) a lot of money, in that they won’t have to fork over as much in taxes as they would to fund a universal tuition program. Then there’s the bureaucracy issue; means-tested programs like FAFSA and COBRA require “miles of red tape.” They are monstrously difficult to figure out both on the user side and the vendor side, and so the task of delivering those benefits becomes horribly onerous, often to the point where people give up altogether on trying to obtain them. By contrast, universal programs are fairly easy to understand and simple to administer.
Then there’s the issue of political solidarity. Means-tested programs inevitably create division and ill will by deeming certain people worthy of assistance, and others not. In other words, if a government benefit is made available to everyone earning below “x” amount, then those who earn “x+1” are naturally made to resent those earning “x-1.” Universal programs, by contrast, make us all, as Meagan writes, “partners in prosperity” who each give to them what we can, and take from them what we need, knowing the benefits of such programs are available to everyone, not just those who “qualify” according to an arbitrary threshold decided on by government bureaucrats.
And so here we are, one year later. Joe Biden recently released his latest plans for college tuition and student debt relief, both the products of negotiation and compromise with Bernie Sanders and their various policy “task forces.” On the tuition side, Biden has apparently agreed to make public college tuition free for those whose households earn a maximum of $125,000. This would undoubtedly be an enormous benefit to most American families seeking to send their kids to public college, but, once again, comes with all of the problems outlined above which characterize any means-tested initiative.
The student debt relief component, however, is an utter disaster. Biden now calls for a coronavirus-related relief plan which forgives up to $10,000 of student debt (notice the words “up to,” meaning this itself will be means-tested somehow), forgiveness of all undergraduate tuition from public colleges and universities, and cancellation of debt for all graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSI’s) who earn less than $125,000 per year. He would also allow for up to $50,000 of student debt relief for teachers.
As you can see, dividing lines are drawn all over the place. You’ve got a means-tested pandemic-related forgiveness component, a public vs. private school component, an income and race-based component, and finally, an occupation-based component. I hate to use such a cliché, but this is means-testing on steroids.
First, it can be assumed that debts are forgiven for public school graduates but not private school graduates because private schools tend to be for wealthier families. Of course, this is not always the case, mostly because of…wait for it…STUDENT LOANS, which often make it possible for poor and working class people to attend costly private schools. But the madness doesn’t stop there. Biden then says he’ll forgive private school graduates’ loans if that private school happens to be an HBCU or an MSI, and that graduate earns less than $125,000 per year. So no forgiveness for private school graduates, unless that private school happens to be an HBCU or an MSI, and even then, you have to earn under a certain amount to qualify for relief.
Contrast this gobbledygook with Sanders’ plan to simply cancel all student debt. Not only was Bernie’s plan both more streamlined and more generous, but it was clearly devised with students’ – all students’ – best interests at heart. His plan asserts that our student loan system is predatory and immoral, and a massive drain on our economy, and should, therefore, be canceled. Period. Biden, on the other hand, seems to have adopted the position that student loans are an unjust burden on “certain” people (itself a morally confused place to start), and should therefore be ameliorated for those worthy of such assistance.
What’s glaringly obvious when comparing these plans is that Biden’s main concern here is not for the students or the graduates, but for the financial institutions profiting off these loans. Why else, if he agrees we ought to cancel some student debt, would he not agree to cancel all student debt? Of course, simply (and crudely) put, he doesn’t want to fuck the money lenders too hard.
Again, the centrist means-testing scam is revealed. What looks like a sensible approach to prioritize working class people’s needs over those of the rich is actually a scheme to save the wealthy billions of dollars in taxes and maintain our neoliberal economic order.
I have decided to post this blog in conjunction with a re-publishing of my interview with Meagan Day in July of 2019. If you enjoyed reading this article, I implore you to listen to the podcast for a more thorough exploration of means-tested vs. universal programs. You can listen to the entire conversation on the player below:
Photo: Matt Rourke, AP