Greetings from beautiful near-downtown Pittsburgh, where I’m posting this morning after finally crossing off one of the Top 5 items on my bucket list (a list that’s felt more urgent in the last year or two), having seen Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones at Heinz Field. The world’s greatest rock and roll band actually seemed to get younger as a grueling two-hour show progressed, so by the closing, fireworks-aided “Satisfaction” they’d regained their inner 1965. I need to learn that trick.

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‘Means testing’ is a nice way to say politicians will protect the rich, cheat the working class

Community college in America wants to be free ... it really does! That was the main recommendation 74 years ago by the first presidential commission that studied higher education in the United States, the Truman Commission, and it was a major policy goal of Democratic leaders like Barack Obama and now President Biden. Experts say the gains for the middle class in acquiring both knowledge and job skills greatly outweigh the costs.

But in the current drama on Capitol Hill over spending $350 billion a year on Biden’s ambitious social agenda, the high-minded concept that “13th and 14th grade” (as the Truman Commission called it) needs to be free just like public K-12 education is bumping against the two most insidious and abused words in American politics.

“Means testing.”

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, an influential “moderate” Democrat who in an alternate universe would be serving his second term as Hillary Clinton’s vice president, told Business Insider he believes the concept of tuition-free public community college can survive the current impasse over Biden’s plan, but only if the program is means tested.

The concept here — setting an income cut-off so that upper middle-class or wealthy families aren’t getting a government benefit they could afford themselves, thus saving taxpayer dollars — is a popular idea in Washington and with some voters. Rarely discussed are the many real-world problems with means testing — that it creates an expensive new bureaucracy that sucks up cash that could go for direct aid, or that that the complicated process, and possibly the stigma, discourages deserving students from applying.

Whatever Kaine is proposing isn’t really free community college. If his plan comes to fruition — and there’s talk on Capitol Hill of applying means testing to much of the Biden agenda — it will be one more way that we make it harder than it needs to be, and ultimately demoralizing, to be middle class in 2020s America.

» READ MORE: How Biden got it wrong about Penn, the Ivies, student debt, and America’s ‘college problem’ | Will Bunch

Means testing is deeply rooted in a brand of politics that emerged in the tempestuous 1970s and found its champion in Ronald Reagan, who railed against supposed “welfare queens” he said were milking hard-working taxpayers for new Cadillacs or other luxuries. Reagan’s spirit lives on, unfortunately, in today’s politicians like West Virginia’s centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who sees means testing as a way to slash the $350-billion-a-year plan to $150 billion a year, please his corporate patrons, and brag to home-state voters that he took on the undeserving poor. Said Manchin: “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving toward an entitlement mentality.”

The reality of 40 years of means testing — as any parent or teenager who’s struggled to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, could tell you — has been to keep millions of people from receiving government aid to which they’re entitled, and which could lift their families out of poverty. Experts say that about a quarter of the working American families eligible for food stamps, and a comparable number of folks entitled to lower-income tax credits, don’t use them because of the bureaucratic hassles.

Meanwhile, there’s little rhyme or reason around which programs the government imposes means testing and which ones are provided to everyone regardless of income — although many of the programs with the most hoops are the ones perceived, rightly or wrongly, as those which would benefit Black and brown Americans. Proposals for means testing certain Medicare benefits — arguably the government’s most popular social program, available to all seniors — are usually beaten back, with help from voters who oppose other social programs. Any suggestion that public K-12 education in America ought to be means tested — that high-income families pay tuition or head for private schools — would be rightly seen as absurd.

So why do we make kids pay for their school lunches, in a complex system where some families are charged and some are not — creating unnecessary social stigmas and bizarre scenarios where some kids are made to go hungry because of an unpaid bill. Many schools went to all-free lunch during the pandemic, and it’s time for others to follow their lead.

The obsession with means testing can muddle the original idea of what a program was originally trying to accomplish. One current raging debate in Congress is over whether to means test government grants for consumers to buy electric vehicles — even though last time I checked a billionaire’s gas guzzler pollutes just as much as one driven by his company’s night watchman.

The goal, in other words, should be to remove all the high hurdles facing American families trying to escape poverty or gain a better life through education, not to waste our time and energy on erecting new ones. If parents who are Hollywood millionaires — the ones who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars bribing people or committing fraud to get their kids into University of Southern California or Yale — shift gears and decide to cash in on the free-community-college gravy train, I’m OK with that. You should be OK with that, too.

Yo, do this

  • “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” it was famously uttered in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The legend of iconic press baron William Randolph Hearst was made into arguably our greatest movie in Citizen Kane, but the facts — as portrayed in the new PBS documentary Citizen Hearst (streaming here) — are arguably stranger than fiction. The power of Hearst to ruin politicians and invent military conflicts (famously, with 1898′s Spanish-American War) will make you ponder the power of the media in American society — not just then, but now.

  • My love affair with the Wondery history podcasts anchored by the excellent voice actor Lindsay A. Graham (yeah, that name ... what are you gonna do?) predates the launch of this newsletter, so I’m here to remind you about his original flagship podcast, America History Tellers. The podcast’s current season, Roaring Twenties looks at life in America 100 years ago with a clear eye, including a harsh takedown of the “Red Scare” and the Palmer raids that targeted innocent people in immigrant communities, especially Italian-Americans, and on the political left.

Ask me anything

Question: Should the The Washington Post and The New York Times be stripped of their Pulitzers for their false reporting on Russia collusion? — Via Raisha Parker @ParkerRaisha on Twitter

Answer: Donald Trump, who made exactly that demand over the weekend, certainly thinks so. Unfortunately, the key premise of your question, and Trump’s, is wrong. There’s never been evidence that the journalism by the Times and Post — which revealed a disturbing pattern of contacts between Team Trump and Russian players during the 2016 presidential campaign — was false or incorrect. The debate has always been over interpretation. The probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined that while the Trump campaign was open to overtures from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it didn’t rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy. But we’d see Trump’s willingness to gain the White House through dubious means yet again —on January 6, 2021.

History lesson

It’s hard to believe, but as recently as the late 1960s people didn’t talk much about “the environment.” At the end of the industrial age, too many Americans still accepted dirty air and polluted rivers as the price of doing business. Then on January 28, 1969, a blowout at a shortcut-plagued oil rig off Santa Barbara spilled crude into the Pacific Ocean at a rate of 9,000 gallons an hour. In an era when Southern California was marketed as the American Dream, everyday folks were shocked at images of pristine beaches covered in muck and dead birds soaking in crude oil. Anger over the West Coast spill is credited with launching the U.S. environmental movement that went into higher orbit with 1970′s first Earth Day, as that era saw the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with new rules and new limits on offshore drilling.

» READ MORE: As the world burns, D.C. fiddles on climate | Will Bunch Newsletter

But 52 years later, our national addiction to fossil fuels has arguably remained a more powerful force. The regulations eased, much of the offshore oil infrastructure remained, and even worse oil spills happened — most famously, 2010′s Deepwater Horizon disaster off Louisiana. This weekend, an apparent pipeline rupture near Huntington Beach and Newport Beach in heavily populated Orange County has spewed the equivalent of 126,000 gallons of post-production crude oil into sensitive waters, including a wildlife preserve. With dead birds and sea creatures washing ashore, the mayor of Huntington Beach is calling the spill “a potential environmental disaster,” but it already seems well past that. It’s not like we needed new evidence that America needs to quickly wean itself off fossil fuels. Yet politicians like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin are still fighting in Washington to preserve our dirty-energy regime. When will we ever learn?

Inquirer reading list

  • It’s Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s world, while the rest of us just live in it — or so they’d like us to believe. In September, I took a deep dive into Manchin’s messy entanglements that have stalled President Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, and in this week’s Sunday column I tried to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Arizona’s iconoclastic Democrat, Sinema, who is a key roadblock to a $350-billion-a-year, middle-class aid package. Her ties to private equity and other big-money donors are deeply troubling.

  • Over the weekend, I took at look at one of the few good things in the news lately — the success of vaccine mandates in convincing thousands of people to get their COVID-19 jabs. I asked whether the political courage of leaders like Joe Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom could become contagious. Democrats need to show similarly bold leadership around issues like ending the filibuster to save voting rights, which could prevent a Republican virus that is threatening our democracy.

  • “You got in line, took your shot, and that’s it. It was no big deal.” That was how 98-year-old Ed Constantini of South Philadelphia described getting one of America’s first batches of the flu shot, at the height of World War II, when getting that jab was seen as a patriotic duty — no more, no less. The Inquirer’s David Gambacorta, a great storyteller in a newsroom that’s full of them, wondered if things used to be different around vaccines. His deep dive into a forgotten saga from the 1940s suggests that, yes, it was not the same America. Some key ingredients in a great story are time, resources, and the ability to employ the best writers. Your subscription to The Inquirer allows us to do that.