A “Means Test” is defined by Chambers dictionary as test of private resources determining or limiting claim to a pension or allowance.
Such tests are centuries old. Ever since the time, four or five centuries ago, when governments and local authorities began to take over from religious bodies and private charity the obligation of supporting the destitute, there have always been tests of “Means” or “Needs*’.
It is a perennial problem of capitalism and no matter how many times the relief system has been reformed and given new names no solution has been found.
Even if we leave out of account the fact that workers generally do not consider their wages sufficient to meet their own ideas of reasonable needs, and consider only the question of a bare subsistence, capitalism cannot guarantee that workers will always have it provided. Capitalism cannot guarantee continuous employment and cannot even guarantee that wages will always be sufficient to provide bate subsistence.
So unless the authorities were prepared to let the destitute starve (and put up with consequent unemployed riots and encouragement to theft) they have to pay out state and local government funds. But they could not let the applicants name their own figure for the money they wanted, nor could they fix their own figure and let everyone have it who applied.
If they had done this it would have acted as an inducement to workers in low paid jobs simply to give them up.
The authorities tried everything from the “whipping of beggars” in Tudor and Elizabethan times, to making them go into the hated workhouses, or work colonies, breaking up families, offering assistance in the form of food, making the unemployed prove they were genuinely seeking work, and applying means tests which subjected the applicants to official enquiry to demonstrate that they really were near destitution.
Then came schemes of compulsory contributions to provide for the payment of specified benefits in sickness, unemployment and old age but although this altered the form of the problem it did not abolish it, did not free the applicant from satisfying conditions laid down in the regulations and did not abolish destitution—there are still about two million people who in the course of a year get public assistance (recently re-named Social Security supplementary benefits).
In an article in the Guardian (2.6.67) Mr. Peter Jenkins states that “seventeen forms of benefit are subject to Means Tests of one form or another.”
No Means Test is popular but the most detested forms of test are those which go beyond the applicant and take into recount the means of other members of the household family.
It was a household means test which was one of the explosive political issues of the nineteen thirties. The National Government which came into office in August 1931 decided to apply to unemployment pay a determination of needs regulation. It was not a new test because it had long existed for applicants for public assistance: what was new was to apply it to the unemployed who had exhausted their right to benefit. The continued payment of benefit was made dependent on the household income and the applicants’ savings, ownership of a house or other property.
When the National Government introduced the necessary legislation the section of the Labour Party in opposition condemned it, but as those members of the Labour Party who were in the National Government pointed out, this measure had been approved by a majority of the Cabinet of the Labour Government while it was still in office as part of their extensive economy plans. (Details were published in the Socialist Standard October 1931).
That particular means test as applied to unemployment pay was abolished when Ernest Bevin was Minister of Labour in the war-time National Government in April 1941, but a similar though not so searching test was and still is applied to applicants for Supplementary Pensions. The applicant has to provide information about his own and his wife’s income from all sources, “including such items as pensions from former employers, regular payments from friends and relatives, and the assumed income from capital”, though twenty shillings a week of this “other income” is disregarded in determining the right to and amount of benefit.
Other forms of means test relate to the present government’s schemes for rent rebates and rate rebates. Mr. Richard Crossman in July 1966, at that time Housing Minister, urged local Authorities to put up rent of council houses to a “more realistic” level and to meet the situation of low-income tenants by giving them rebates, subject of course, to evidence of need. He was opposed by objectors who maintained that the authorities “have no right to interfere with individual liberty by prying into tenant’s means to assess a fair rent.” (Daily Mail 9.7.66).
In a typical rent relief scheme, that used by the Greater London Council while the Labour Party still controlled it, the applicant had to give full information about the income of himself and wife from all sources and also the name and age and family relationship of all persons living in the house. But instead of asking for information about the income of those persons the Council added to the estimated total income determining the right to relief an amount of fourteen shillings a week for each person aged 21 or over and seven shillings a week for each person aged 18-20.
Peter Jenkins in the article already referred to, now tells us that long argument had been going on inside the Cabinet about applying a new means test in connection with a proposed increase of family allowances which would raise the allowance for the third and subsequent children by ten shillings a week—he claims that the Ministers were almost equally divided, with only a majority of one against it. “With the Cabinet so astonishingly narrowly divided it is certain that the issue will come up again.”
With unconscious irony he tells that the advocates of the new Means Test “were able to argue that each according to his needs is equally a principle of socialism” — as if that socialist principle can have any possible connection with a device of capitalism to screw down the pittance provided for its victims.