Yet while the moderate Buttigieg embraced the rhetoric of class warfare more commonly associated with Sanders or Occupy Wall Street, he is championing a policy that has repeatedly — and perhaps surprisingly — hurt working-class and poor Americans since the late 19th century. Celebrated social programs such as Social Security have created a safety net that all Americans are eligible to take part in. Means-tested programs, on the other hand — which are available only to a small subset of the population, based on income or other factors — have been poorly funded, attacked, marginalized and meagerly supported. This pattern is likely to repeat itself with college tuition benefits. While the scions of wealthy families may not need government help, unless they are included, efforts to address the costs drowning the less fortunate are doomed to fail.
The origins of anti-poverty policy in the United States in the first three decades of the 20th century illustrate the dichotomy between universal and means-tested social programs. Distinct groups of reformers charted two very different visions for creating a social safety net for Americans.
The first, which developed into Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) — or what we now call welfare — began as an experiment in providing state “mother’s pensions” to single mothers. The reformers who created this program, many of them female activists, intended the program to be small and limited by design. They believed that the cause of poverty among women was the absence of male breadwinners, a situation exacerbated by the Depression, and they envisioned the AFDC as a stopgap measure to rescue unfortunate women whose plights were temporary. As soon as a woman began earning a regular wage, or when she married a man expected to provide for her, benefits would cease.
However, the program soon became embroiled in bitter debates about which women were “deserving” of public support and an obsession with keeping welfare rolls low. Because “welfare” was understood to be a last resort, its recipients were eyed with suspicion if they seemed to stick around too long. When economic conditions improved, affluent Americans grew even more skeptical of the AFDC.
By the 1960s, New Deal programs and robust federal spending on infrastructure, housing and education had created a burgeoning white middle class. Nonwhite Americans, particularly African Americans and Latinos, were explicitly excluded from accessing many of these benefits, exacerbating the racial wealth gap and creating the (inaccurate) impression that means-tested programs such as AFDC served only nonwhites. The new white middle class was largely ineligible for means-tested programs such as AFDC and also was unable to understand why others might need it. AFDC became a political liability for liberals, who largely ignored the underfunded program. As historian Linda Gordon explains, “The fact is that a puny welfare system gives no one what they want and thus makes itself universally unpopular.”
Beginning in the 1970s, AFDC itself became associated with shame and failure. When President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, he resolved to make “welfare” officially temporary (changing the name from AFDC to TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Recipients were held to limited benefit terms, strict morality policing and new regulations demanding they go to great lengths to find paying jobs. As sociologist Myra Marx Ferree explained, welfare recipients’ “dependency and neediness were the prerequisites of assistance, but also the basis for marginalizing them.”
By contrast, Social Security, which emerged at the same time as AFDC, was crafted as an entitlement available to all Americans and has never endured the same political attacks that AFDC has weathered. Because of its purported universality, Social Security was not imagined as a program providing “aid” but as a form of insurance, offering unemployment, illness and old-age benefits as a simple right of citizenship. Yet, while touted as benefiting all Americans, Social Security initially left out the majority of African Americans and white women, who were employed in occupations specifically excluded in the legislation.
This reality exposed the fact that AFDC and Social Security were more similar than they appeared. Both programs relied on assumptions about which kinds of workers “deserved” a helping hand and which ones were “entitled” to security. Yet because most Americans were eligible for Social Security and, crucially, since almost all white men were eligible, the program became understood, in the words of Ferree, as “a right of social citizenship.” While AFDC weathered numerous political attacks by the time it was dismantled in the 1990s, even right-wing activists sometimes defend entitlement programs such as Medicare.
This two-tiered system of “welfare” and “entitlements” has been particularly devastating for women, African Americans and Latinos. Cultural narratives connect African Americans and Latinos with welfare, despite the fact that more than half of safety-net recipients are white. While distorting the race of recipients, these narratives also attack their worthiness, presuming that they struggle not because of inequality and structural impediments such as the legacies of slavery, immigration policy and redlining, but because of their own poor choices. This perception that recipients are undeserving has led to stringent conditions on benefits, and benefit levels that are inadequate to help lift families out of poverty.
This history teaches us that while it sounds good to keep “millionaires and billionaires” from going to college free of tuition, this rhetoric could easily become the first step toward creating a reform that pleases no one. Means-tested tuition benefits — much like we have in the form of Pell Grants, which are meagerly funded — increase administrative burdens while inviting questions about whether grant recipients truly “deserve” support. Those who are ineligible wonder why recipients deserve benefits while they do not.
This logic is one reason Pell Grants are so small and allocated to such a small number of college students. Applying this same logic to a broader system of tuition support would result in a program that offers inadequate help to a small pool of Americans, since non-recipients would have little interest in forking over more in taxes to enlarge benefits. Buttigieg proposes a solution that is, in fact, a lose-lose proposition.
Most importantly, robust public support for public universities would have another benefit, one that would lessen the power of the wealthy. Over the past 10 years, states have decreased their spending on higher education by $9 billion, leaving public universities in a budget crunch that has opened big questions about who will be footing the bills. One byproduct has been the hike in tuition that students pay, driving a student debt crisis that limits young adults’ opportunities to pursue the careers they want, buy homes and start families.
Another, far-less-discussed consequence has been that public universities have had to look more and more to private donors to balance the budget, which necessarily means aligning with the priorities of the wealthy. Federal support for public universities that make them tuition-free to all students therefore would make them less beholden to the wealthy and more accountable to all of us who depend on higher education to help solve the crucial problems of the 21st century.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that TANF stood for Temporary Aid to Needy Families. It is actually Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.