From the “welfare-reform” efforts of the 1990s to the strictly income-dependent benefits of the Affordable Care Act, means-testing has dominated the past several decades of center-left policy discussion in the United States. According to this conventional wisdom, mostly associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, targeting social benefits to low-income individuals was a fiscal and moral necessity. Means-tested programs—such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—were preferable because they’re relatively cheap and give benefits only to those who “truly need them.”
But the influence of means-testing may be starting to wane. The surge of support for Bernie Sanders in his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton showed that many young voters had an appetite for bolder, more ambitious policies. And for a number of 2020 presidential candidates, “universal” has become a buzzword: Elizabeth Warren wants universal childcare, Kamala Harris calls for universal pre-k, and, of course, Sanders continues to champion a universal, single-payer health-insurance program. It’s debatable whether or not all these policies are genuinely universal, but there’s no disputing that such appeals have become newly prominent in the platforms of high-level Democratic office seekers.
There are good reasons to back such universal programs. All social policy, as the noted welfare-state scholar Gøsta Esping-Andersen argues, either reinforces or removes class stratifications. A welfare regime based on means-testing and income targeting does the former; it necessarily divides those who receive benefits from those who don’t. That leads non-recipients to grumble about having to subsidize an underclass of moochers, while recipients are subject to dehumanizing stigma. Such programs tend to be socially divisive and politically unstable. In contrast, universal programs promise to transcend existing economic cleavages and create broad social solidarity, because everyone benefits; this solidarity, in turn, helps protect universal programs from political attack.
Many politicians and analysts in the United States insisting on the necessity of universal programs make arguments along these lines. They also hold up the Nordic welfare states as models, proof that such programs are more than just progressive fantasies. It’s obvious why: Sweden, Finland, and Norway have been enviably successful in attacking poverty and inequality. But a careful look at these nations delivers mixed news to universalists: truly egalitarian social policy requires a great deal more than just slapping the word “universal” on your latest white paper. Rather, the best welfare states in the world go well beyond universalism, creating programs of such quality that the private market for social goods is barely allowed to exist. Doing welfare policy like a Norwegian or a Finn or a Swede requires a boatload of money, a sophisticated understanding of political economy, and a politics that is explicitly antagonistic toward “market solutions” to social problems.
Those familiar with arguments about the Nordic welfare states might expect a disclaimer: these countries are small and ethnically homogeneous, and thus nothing like the heterogeneous, fractious United States, with its ethnic and racial tensions. Ultimately, those differences don’t prohibit useful comparisons. Broad social cohesion in the Nordics didn’t appear out of thin air; deep political cleavages were overcome through the arduous work of coalition building. Social-democratic parties representing highly organized labor movements managed, with considerable political ingenuity, to forge alliances with agricultural interests and then middle-class professionals. To claim that Nordic egalitarianism is innate is simply ahistorical: equality and social cohesion in these countries are distinctly political phenomena. Arguments based on the size of the Nordics are even less persuasive. The United States, the richest nation in the history of the world, has far more resources with which to create generous welfare programs than did, say, early-twentieth-century Finland. Doing so is a matter of political will, not just demographics or geography.