Image: A paper food stamp from 1980 (source)
I've already spilled quite a bit of ink (1 2 3) criticizing means testing on administrative grounds. Means testing is an extraordinary waste of resources; it's the reason the administrative costs of TANF are 15 times that of Social Security despite the fact that both programs fundamentally do the same thing (income transfer). And means testing in Obamacare is so irrational that Obamacare essentially spends billions of dollars to prevent millions of people from having health insurance.
But focusing on the administrative issues of means testing ignores the terrible human burden of means testing, which I hope to address now.
Before diving in, a few words about what I'm not writing about. I'm not discussing the cruelty of income or asset tests that are too low;* that injustice is obvious. Nor is this piece about the cruelty of benefits that are too low, or programs that are so poorly funded that the vast majority of eligible individuals don't receive benefits. These injustices are obvious. Less evident, however, are the ways that means testing itself places a burden on individuals and society generally, regardless of where the border between eligible and ineligible lies.
There are an endless number of tragic ways for means testing to destroy people's lives, but they all boil down to two basic issues. First, people who aren't eligible but need benefits must destroy their lives in order to attain and maintain eligibility. Second, means testing is necessarily imperfect. We will never design a perfect means testing bureaucracy, and some eligible people will always be incorrectly found to be ineligible. How many lives are we willing to destroy through imperfect means testing decisions?
"You'll have to get rid of everything"
Go and read this first person account of a family who needed to qualify for Medicaid because a family member became disabled in a horrible car accident in which she was not at fault. Only Medicaid covers the long term care equipment and services mommy needs to live, but Medicaid only covers poor people--so the entire family must live in poverty for the rest of their lives (they have to meet the so-called income and asset tests). The family had to liquidate their 401(k) (and pay the early withdraw tax penalties), sell their cars, empty their bank accounts, and sell all their valuables in order to meet the asset means test. Daddy had to cut his hours at work to 133% of the poverty line to meet the income means test; thereafter, 100% of any wages in excess of this level would be taken by Medicaid. Baby can never attend preschool when she gets older because the family can never earn or possess enough money to pay for tuition; auntie can't pay for baby's preschool because that would be Medicaid fraud. And baby can't have a college fund because any savings would make them ineligible for the Medicaid services that keep mommy alive. The entire story is so totally inane that it doesn't make any sense to blockquote it; it is well worth your time to read in full, even if you think you already understand that cruelty of our welfare system.
This may be an extreme example, but means testing necessarily results in distorted incentives. As the above story makes plain, when people depend on benefits, working more hours or saving any money becomes an impossibility. Thus, at the aggregate level, America's poor are forced to liquidate or forego savings and income in order to remain eligible for programs they depend on. For TANF (more commonly known as "welfare"):
Two of the first states to eliminate asset tests (Ohio and Virginia) actually saw declines in program enrollment and improvements in their overall bottom line.....What our research suggests,  is that asset limits simply are not necessary to prevent misuse and actually discourage self-sufficiency.You did not misread that: eliminating asset tests results in lower overall program costs and fewer people in need of benefits. Thus, by preserving asset tests, our political system demonstrates that poverty is a conscious goal: states are willing to pay money to ensure people remain in poverty.
Benefits lost because of failure to report coma
Go read this account of a woman incorrectly found to be ineligible for benefits she and her daughter depended on. Again, it's so inane that it makes no sense blockquote it; the entire piece really must be read in full. Mother and daughter lived above the poverty line until mom need a hysterectomy. Mom was unable to work after the operation, so the family applied for and received TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid. However, mom slipped into a coma due to complications following her hysterectomy; when she woke up, she found that she had lost all of her benefits because she failed to report she was in a coma. And because she lost her benefits, she lost her home and her daughter, and had to subsist on one meal per day while sleeping on her ex-husband's couch--all the while recovering from her surgery and coma.
Should this be tolerated in a civilized society? Universal benefits do not encourage sloth or abuse. Universal benefits work better than means tested benefits for all but the very richest. Our political system prefers means testing because poverty sustainment is a conscious, intentional, and deliberate goal--and always has been.
Means testing is corrosive to society
Aside from the direct human costs to individuals, means testing itself is corrosive to society.
When people who are eligible for benefits are incorrectly found to be ineligible, they come to believe--correctly--that the system is unfair. Such experiences often create world views that are corrosive to society--that everyone needs to grab whatever they can get for themselves whether legitimately or illegitimately, and that no one can be trusted. This same result occurs when people who are ineligible are incorrectly found to be eligible.
Second, having a system in which only the poor are eligible but only the middle class and rich finance with their taxes guarantees class warfare. Universal benefits largely eliminate this problem.
Finally, it disgraces our society and degrades all members within it to willingly leave people in need. A child shouldn't grow up in poverty and not have a college fund because her mom was a victim of a hit and run. A woman shouldn't lose her home and be separated from her daughter because of complications from a surgery. Means testing makes tragedies like these inevitable.
*Ed Bolen explains the absurdity of SNAP (food stamp) eligibility:
Roughly 1 million of the nation's poorest people will be cut off SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) over the course of 2016, due to the return in many areas of a three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-50 who aren't disabled or raising minor children. These individuals will lose their food assistance benefits after three months regardless of how hard they are looking for work.
One of the harshest pieces of the 1996 welfare law, this provision limits such individuals to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period when they aren't employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week. Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program -- which is the case in most states -- have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job. [T]his provision denies basic food assistance to people who want to work and will accept any job or work program slot offered...
The loss of this food assistance, which averages approximately $150 to $200 per person per month for this group, will likely cause serious hardship among many. Agriculture Department (USDA) data show that the individuals subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of approximately 19 percent of the poverty line, and they typically qualify for no other income support.