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A means test is a determination of whether an individual or family is eligible for government assistance or welfare, based upon whether the individual or family possesses the means to do without that help.
In Canada, means tests are used for student finance (for post-secondary education), legal aid, and "welfare" (direct transfer payments to individuals to combat poverty). They are not generally used for primary and secondary education which are tax-funded. Means tests for public health insurance were once common but are now illegal, as the Canada Health Act of 1984 requires that all the provinces provide universal healthcare coverage to be eligible for subsidies from the federal government. Means tests are also not used for pensions and seniors' benefits, but there is a clawback of Old Age Security payments for people making over $69,562 (in 2012). The Last Post Fund uses a means test on a deceased veteran's estate and surviving widow to determine whether they are eligible for federal funding to subsidize their funeral.
Resentment over a means test was among the factors giving rise to the National Unemployed Workers' Movement in the United Kingdom. Today, means-tested benefits—meaning that entitlement is affected by the amount of income and savings—is a central feature of the benefit system. Means testing is also part of the determination of legal aid in a magistrates court and for the higher Crown Court. The means test is based on income, family circumstances and essential living costs.
Means testing is used to test for eligibility to Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Section 8 housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Federal Work-Study Program, direct subsidized student loans, as well as the eligibility for relief for debtors who have sufficient financial means to pay a portion of their debts. The means test is perhaps best recognized in the United States as the test used by courts to determine eligibility for Title 11 of the United States Code Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the test was used to screen applicants for such programs as Home Relief, and starting in the 1960s, for benefits such as those provided by Medicaid and the Food Stamp Program.
In 1992, third-party Presidential candidate Ross Perot proposed that future Social Security benefits be subjected to a means test; though this was hailed by some as a potential solution to a purported impending crisis in funding the program, few other political candidates since Perot have publicly made the same suggestion, which would require costly investigations and might associate accepting those benefits with social stigma.
In 2005, the US substantially changed its bankruptcy laws, adding a means test to prevent wealthy debtors from filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy. The most noteworthy change brought by the 2005 BAPCPA amendments occurred within 11 U.S.C. § 707(b). The amendments effectively subject most debtors who make an income, as calculated by the Code, above the median income of the debtor's state to an income-based test. This is referred to as the "means test." The means test provides for a finding of abuse if the debtor's income is higher than a specified portion of their debts. If a presumption of abuse is found under the means test, it may be rebutted only in the case of "special circumstances."
Debtors whose income is below the state's median income are not subject to the means test. Notably, the Code-calculated income may be higher or lower than the debtor's actual income at the time of filing for bankruptcy. This has led some commentators to refer to the bankruptcy code's "current monthly income" as "presumed income." If the debtor's debt is not primarily consumer debt, then the means test is inapplicable.
Thus, the means test is a formula designed to keep filers with higher incomes from filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. These filers may use Chapter 13 bankruptcy to repay a portion of their debts, but may not use Chapter 7 to wipe out their debts altogether. Many think the bankruptcy means test is complex but generous and most debtors seem to have no trouble meeting its requirements, while others[who?] have suggested that the means test is not all that fair or equitable, and have somewhat cynically pointed out that the reference to consumer protection in the bankruptcy act is ironic at best, since those with primarily consumer debt are required to pass a means test while businesses are not. What is undeniable is that it is complex, and the terms that govern many parts of it – including those terms that control whether it applies at all – are of unsettled definition.
Means-testing has been criticized on a number of grounds, the most fundamental of which is the distinction between a social program, which helps all equally or in proportion to their taxation, and a poverty program, which disproportionately helps the poor. For example, William Beveridge, in the Beveridge Report (blueprint for the UK's post-war social system) was opposed to means-testing, due to the poverty trap. Issues of a poverty program versus a social program include the following:
- A program benefiting only the poor may carry a stigma on its use and be demeaning; compare poverty food.
- Political support
- A program benefiting only the poor may lack broad-based political support, in contrast to programs that all share in. This can make it easier to reduce the benefits later.
- Poverty programs transfer money from the rich to the poor, as they directly benefit only the poor but are paid for by both rich and poor taxpayers.
Further objections to means-testing include the following:
- Poverty trap
- Means tests, particularly sharp cut-offs, create high effective marginal tax rates and can serve to keep people in poverty, both by removing social support as the person tries to escape poverty, and by discouraging such attempts by high costs. For example, asset-based limits, such as requiring an individual to have little or no savings to qualify, not only discourage saving (because of the cost of being disqualified from such savings) but also require people to become completely destitute to qualify and prevent them from having any much-needed savings when attempting to escape poverty.
- Means tests, particularly complicated ones and ones that differ between programs and between different levels of government, complicate access to programs: individuals cannot easily know whether they qualify and may qualify for some programs but not others. In the absence of centralized outreach, the added complication of means tests means that some, perhaps many people who qualify for programs, do not benefit from them.
- Administrative costs
- Means tests increase administrative costs (overhead), due to the work of verifying that the tests are satisfied. Some argue that these costs can offset or more than offset the savings by reduced payouts under means-testing.
- If means-testing is implemented in an existing program, particularly for which people have paid taxes but not benefited, as in pensions or medical insurance, the reduction in benefits can be seen as a breach of promise and entitlement of the program.
- Brewster, Murray (4 November 2013). "Veterans burial fund has more money, but access still restricted: budget office". Macleans. The Canadian Press. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- D'Arcy, Cliff (2009), The Financial Times Guide to Managing Your Money, Financial Times, p. 159, ISBN 0-273-71703-0
- "Criminal legal aid: means testing". GOV.UK. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
- Understanding Bankruptcy. Second Edition. Jeff Ferriell and Edward J. Janger. LexisNexis. 2007. p. 28.
- McSteen, Martha. "Fifty Years of Social Security". Social Security Administration. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
It should be supplemented by effective private pensions, individual insurance, savings, and other investments; and it should be undergirded by effective means-tested programs.
- Pyles, Sean (18 July 2016). "Why the bankruptcy means test matters". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 16 December 2017.
- 11 U.S.C. § 707(b)(2)(B)
- Means Testing for Medical Subsidies
- New Fear For State Pensions, October 30,2010, Alison Little