Means-tests have long been a public-facing characteristic of American social programming. They have drawn considerable ire for their tendency to withhold important welfare services, stigmatize claimants, and clog funding channels, and are thus rarely implemented by, for example, Western European welfare states. The onerous effects of the United States’ impulse towards means-tested social spending were cast in sharp relief as the delivery of CARES Act funding to low-income Americans sputtered into 2021.

With nearly a quarter of American adults expecting a member of their household to lose employment income by mid-March of 2021, emergency relief is a crucial component of the nation’s pandemic response. And yet, means-tested pandemic relief – emergency funding that is only accessible once a claimant has proven their deservingness -- has limited the delivery of funding to low-income and minority communities across the country.

The CARES Act allocated substantial tranches of pandemic relief funding to states and certain counties in March of 2020. Many local governments, having already a great deal on their plates, enrolled the services of non-profit organizations to oversee the delivery of relief grants to low-income residents. These organizations have typically incorporated means-testing as a component of their relief funding applications, and, as a result, have struggled to actually deploy the CARES dollars at their disposal. When the December 31, 2020 CARES spending deadline neared, with cities and counties across the country having failed to distribute the entirety of their funding allotments, 49 state and territory attorneys general were forced to petition Congress to extend the deadline through the end of 2021.

The means-tests enfolded into grant applications for low-income earners have undoubtedly contributed to the snails-pace at which CARES funding is being deployed. Applicants are typically asked to provide evidence of their employment history, records of their spending habits, and a portfolio of personal finance documents in order to corroborate their low-income status. These application materials can be extremely difficult to acquire; shopping receipts must be carefully preserved, banks must be contacted, and proof of current and previous employment must be exhumed from personal archives.

The compilation of these documents requires a great deal of time, and in many cases, certain financial paperwork may be unattainable or inaccessible. Even the inability to produce a receipt for a seemingly trivial purchase could prevent a deserving applicant from receiving necessary emergency relief. Moreover, those unable to work, or who have experienced lapses in employment, may encounter further issues when required to evidence their employment history.

Although ostensibly intended to narrow the scope of relief spending and ensure that grants are reserved for those truly in need, means-tests primarily succeed in reproducing class divisions, deterring qualified applicants, and perpetuating stereotypes concerning the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

Means-testing is not the only reason that the delivery of CARES funding to low-income Americans has lagged so significantly -- non-profits have been vastly overburdened owing to dramatic influxes of social services requests, and most organizations have neither the technological infrastructure nor the staff to handle such an increase in demand. But rigorous means-tests undermine the capabilities of non-profits to handle relief applications quickly and likewise increase the workload required of low-income applicants in need of emergency funds. As a result, many low-income earners are entirely prevented from receiving aid. Given the substantial increase in traffic to non-profit service providers which have contributed to impressive administrative delays, expunging means-tests from relief applications would expedite processing times and alleviate some of the congestion facing aid distributors.

If they were ineffective in pre-COVID times, surely the coalignment of urgency and magnitude wrought by the pandemic has highlighted the failings and unsuitability of means-tests. Amid severe and widespread job-loss, a looming crisis of eviction, and increasing rates of Coronavirus infection across the United States, many low-income Americans cannot afford to miss out on emergency pandemic relief - but means-tested aid applications are succeeding in accomplishing just that. 

Jack Portman
Wake Forest University '21
Political Science | Anthropology
Philosophy Minor

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