A means-tested social program is one that uses some economic factor, often income, to screen applicants. One would think it would be a highly unattractive view for conservatives, considering that it excludes wealthy people from economic assistance, and a traditional conservative view has been that the wealthy are "job creators," who invest their earnings back into the economy, and whose wealth benefits everyone (supply-side economics). In addition, at least modern conservatives tend to criticize left-wing policies as showing favoritism to less advantaged groups. By contrast, one would think that left-wing politicians would be more in favor—like a progressive taxation system, the intent seems to be to direct money primarily to those that have least resources.

Of course, the opposite is true. The most left-leaning politicians tend to strongly oppose means-tested programs, even those with rather high income cutoffs (e.g. three or four times the national poverty level). The most right-leaning politicians seem to oppose social welfare programs in general, but more moderate right-wing politicians are often in favor of means-tested programs with cutoffs well above the national poverty level, but well below the income levels of the most wealthy members of the population.

It is true that a means-tested program with a low cutoff can be used to exclude many low-income people from such programs (potentially more attractive to conservatives and anathema to more liberal politicians), but one would think that left-leaning politicians would be in favor of means-tested programs with a high cutoff, whereas right-wing politicians would oppose all of them. Instead, the first group tend to favor universal programs, whereas right-leaning politicians who support some social welfare programs oppose the model seemingly more aligned with their economic philosophy.

Why is this?

  • 4
    I think you are not looking at an important - perhaps the most important - factor here, which is where the money to pay for the programs would be coming from. It seems obvious that a means-tested program is going to cost a good deal less than a universal one. The right generally dislike higher taxes, while the left think you can soak the rich forever...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 5:42
  • 5
    The left tend to oppose a lot of means testing because it often leads to unintended consequences like welfare traps (where going up in salary creates a lower total income). The bureaucracy of implementing means testing is often a) expensive to implement, and b) used as a vehicle to exclude people who should qualify for the program, even when the threshold is supposedly high. The few times I have seen a means tested threshold be rejected for being too high have been more like political stunts - where the right has proposed a policy that the left should support but in an untenable format.
    – Trasvi
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 8:28
  • 6
    I doubt this claimed tendency is true in general and globally. Could you provide a few examples for this perceived correlation to the left/right split? I don't think I've observed this phenomenon here in Austria yet (but our "conservative middle-right" party has traditionally had a strong cristian-social wing which makes the right/left line somewhat blurry)
    – Hulk
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 9:03
  • 1
    A means-tested program means the people on the program are somehow less worthy, deserving only denigration by those on the right (e.g., the "welfare queen" trope). Compare that to the US Social Security system. While it also is welfare, the recipients don't see it as such. Politicians who merely suggest making Social Security more sustainable will get retribution, mostly from right-leaning voters. Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 11:10
  • 6
    @jamesqf it is not obvious that means testing payments costs a good deal less, because means testing itself has to be paid for and no one seems to know what that costs. fullfact.org/economy/…
    – Jontia
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 12:50

4 Answers 4


I think the answer has less to do with means-testing itself, but with the overall goals with respect to the safety-net (at least from a US context, which is what I'll discuss): the left wants to expand it, while the right wants to reduce it.

Democrats don't really oppose means-testing per se, they've supported many means-tested programs (Medicaid, food-stamps, Pell Grants, etc.), but means-testing can be counter to the overall success of a program. It makes it harder and slower for people to get money/benefits from the program, and can discourage people from applying. It can also make the program less popular, as wealthier people, who don't benefit from the program, will have less reason to support it. Furthermore, as concerns about inflation due to an "overheated economy" have abated, there's less reason to worry about giving out "too much" money and more reason to worry about giving "too little" money, and thus failing to sufficiently benefit the public.

Republican politicians (as distinguished from Republican voters, who are generally much more supportive of many parts of social safety-net than their representatives), are similarly motivated by their desire to reduce the social safety-net. Means-testing serves that goal by reducing the size and cost of a program and by discouraging people to participate in it. It also makes it easier to cut in the future: it's much less politically toxic to cut a program by tweaking the means-testing criteria, then it is to cut it wholesale. Finally, by limiting the benefits of a program to a small minority of the population, you reduce the political base for maintaining it. There's a reason that cutting Social Security, which is not means-tested and gives it's benefits out to everyone, is a political "third-rail", while cutting SNAP (food-stamps), which benefits <10% of Americans directly (and the poorest and least politically active 10% at that), is much easier.


Democrats conceived Social Security Insurance (SSI) as a universal nationalized retirement plan. All who buy in benefit. In this way, the program's architects wanted it to have broad support so that it would politically be hard to change or privatize. In this the architects were hugely successful.

Means testing in this program does a few things, other than shoring up the economics of the plan. First it shifts this to being a welfare program. Welfare programs are inherently less popular and are more apt to be curtailed politically. Second, it creates a sub-group of individuals that would politically be opposed to SSI, those that have been means tested out of the program that still get taxed for it. Those people would have every incentive to clamor for the program's total removal. Means testing is seen as the camel's nose under the tent for at least reduction in the benefits, if not the program's ultimate demise.

  • SSI stands for Supplemental Security Income rather than Social Security Insurance. The universal retirement program is Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI). OASDI was formed in 1934, become operational in 1937, and is not means-tested. SSI was created in 1972, became operational in 1974, and is means-tested. Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 18:11
  • @DavidHammen, true that OASDI is not means tested, however as a recipient's means increases (as reflected by gross income), OASDI benefits become increasingly taxed, thereby reducing the actual benefit.
    – BobE
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 18:39

Arguments for and against means testing can be constructed from either the left- or right-wing perspective. Which side takes which position tends to depend on specifics of the party program, current implementation of the social safety net and on who's in charge at the moment more than on the left/right labeling of the party.

Left-wing parties in more social democratic countries are usually in favor of means testing as a way of ensuring the money goes to the people in need and isn't wasted on the rich who could do without it, but in countries with less robust social programs they can be wary of means testing being used as a way to gatekeep the payments behind a wall of bureaucracy impenetrable to the needy.

On the other hand, while the right-wing tends to oppose means testing as a sign of big government interference and prefers to attach other conditions to the payments (eg. all sort of non-tested Kindergeld programs as a way to promote having children among the middle class), if a country is already spending large amounts of money on social programs, it might see means testing as a way to cut the expenses.

In short, there's enough confounding factors that it's hard to classify means testing as a left- or right-wing position.


I feel like (and maybe this is the point of the question) that this is a bit off the mark on the description of the Left/Right split on this. So let me offer an alternative model:

All of this is predicated on the idea of just deserts.

There exists in a spectrum (especially in the US) between "everything that ever happens to anyone is their own fault" and "no one ever deserves anything bad happening to them ever" an idea that it is possible and helpful to separate the deserving wheat from the undeserving chaff. This is true in general (that article I linked is titled "Why Americans Won't Talk About Their Salaries") but especially true when it comes to charity (public or private).

And there's some clear moral intuitions driving this: if a person consistently makes bad, self-destructive choices are we doing them or anybody else a favor by constantly spending society's precious limited resources rescuing them? And then there's a counter-argument to that saying that people make bad choices not just for fun but because of bad genes/upbringing or societal oppression, and a counter-counter argument that says that worldview robs people of their agency, and a counter argument for that and so on down the rabbit hole.

So people are going to vary how much they hold people personally responsible for their outcomes, or whether they even subscribe to the idea at all. But I don't think it's going to strain credulity to state that people of the "you made your bed now lay in it" frame of reference tend to be on the Right, and people of the "just because you won the birth lottery does not make you morally superior" frame of reference tend to be on the Left.

  • It's a fair (and more obvious) point you're raising that there are even more right-wing/libertarian ideas according to which welfare programs should not exist at all. Still, this is mostly failing to answer the question asked, which is on means testing. So, I feel this is more of a comment than an answer. The real answer one can draw from this is that those who think welfare programs should not exist (in the first place) will probably vote to make them hard to access as a "2nd best" option from their perspective. (Not my DV though.) Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 6:56
  • @Fizz Only the most hardcore of the hardcore want there to be no welfare programs at all. But conservatives are much more comfortable in my experience with the idea if it's directed at those who are "deserving" of help for various definitions of deserving. When they complain about welfare it's never about some poor family with a special needs kid, it's always about people they think are milking the system. I should have mentioned means testing more directly in my answer, but you are correct that I am saying that means it's a compromise "test of worthiness" that made welfare more palatable. Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 12:03

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