Why We Oppose Means Testing

June 14, 2021

A common practice with public programs is to limit access only to those who need It in an effort to prevent abuse of the program by those who don’t need its services. This was the case with the stimulus checks during the Coronavirus pandemic, which have only been offered to those under a certain income level. While seemingly good natured, this non-universal program led to delays in millions of recipients getting their checks as well as prevented undocumented and incarcerated people from being eligible for the stimulus. Means testing public programs serves to overcomplicate them and inevitably leads to those who need the program’s benefits being left out.

NEWR opposes means testing for Right to Counsel because we know adding qualifiers to a public program means barriers to every person accessing the program. An income requirement of any sort puts the onus on the person getting evicted to fill out an application and prove their income, which is a large hurdle for someone handling a pending eviction. Further, it brings into question how those facing eviction will find out about the program, and what language the informational resources and the application will be in. It is especially exclusionary to undocumented tenants who rightfully tend to avoid handing out excess personal information to the city.

The bill passed by Denver City Council limits the program to Denverites who earn 80% or less than the city’s area median income, which as of 2020 80% of the area median income is $54,950 for a 1-person household. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the annual income needed to afford a one-bedroom place in Denver is $50,400. This leaves a $4,950 gap between the income cap for the program and income needed to afford a place, something that can quickly be wiped out with a medical bill or job loss, especially when considering these people face eviction most commonly for nonpayment.

While these limits deem ineligible people who likely would need the program, means testing also does not address an actual need. After San Francisco launched its Right to Counsel program, only 6% of its recipients were above moderate income. Given the flaws of using the AMI previously discussed, the number of people “abusing” the program seem far too small to justify any sort of means testing. The additional administrative overhead needed to verify income documentation could potentially exceed the cost of providing legal services to all regardless of income.

Lastly, universal programs tend to be publicly popular and politically sustainable. NEWR aims to move away from the status quo of overcomplicated, targeted programs and towards a city government that provides for everyone.