Benefits for All or Just Some? Sanders Student Debt Plan Highlights 2020 Debate Over Universal vs. Means-Tested Programs

September 13, 2020 0 By HearthstoneYarns

During a press conference unveiling his plan to eliminate all $1.6 trillion of student debt in the United States and make public colleges tuition-free, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday clearly staked out his position in a debate that has revealed stark political divisions among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

“Bernie understands that means-tested policies crumble under political pressure from right-wingers (and moderates) who attack them as going to ‘undeserving’ people.”
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“I believe in universality,” Sanders said when asked whether his free college plan would also apply to the rich. “That means if [President Donald] Trump wants to send his grandchildren to public school, he has the right to do that.”

Sanders’s remarks brought into sharp focus an “internal rift” among Democratic presidential contenders over the most economically and politically effective way to design government programs, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein reported Wednesday.

While Sanders has long been a proponent of universal programs like free public college and Medicare for All—which benefit everyone regardless of income—other Democratic White House hopefuls have displayed a preference for means-tested policies that are tailored toward low-income or middle-class Americans, while disqualifying those in higher income brackets.

As Stein reported, some “experts and Democratic presidential candidates note universal programs tend to be more expensive, often by dramatic margins, and offer help to those who may not need it.”

During the Black Economic Alliance’s presidential forum last month, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he opposes tuition-free public college and across-the-board student debt cancellation because he doesn’t “believe all of us should be paying for the children” of billionaires.

Presidential candidate John Delaney backed this position in an interview with the Post. “Programs to provide relief to people with student debt,” Delaney said, “should be targeted for those who are actually struggling.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has advocated a mixture of universal and means-tested policies. In April, Warren unveiled a debt forgiveness plan that would wipe out $50,000 in student debt for every person with household income under $100,000.