Means test

eligibility criteria based on financial status

A means test is a check that people are poor enough to get help. Social security, education and healthcare are often free only to people who can show that they are poor.

Poverty is generally judged in a family or household. The members are expected to support each other. There may be tests both of regular income and of capital. People who are thought to be deserving are more likely to be helped without a means test.

Means testing can be found in ancient Rome, where 200,000 adult male citizens who passed the test were given cheap grain. [1]

The English Poor Laws gave relief to people who were destitute. Destitution was not defined in the law. [2] In workhouses the rule was that conditions in workhouses had to be worse than conditions available outside. This was to stop people choosing not to help themselves.[3] The National Assistance Act 1948 gave help to people over 16, not in full time work, "who are without resources to meet their requirements, or whose resources must be supplemented in order to meet their requirements." The National Assistance Board made rules about resources and requirements but they were not public.[4] From 1966 there was Supplementary Benefit. The rules were very detailed and public. From 1966 there was Income Support, which was simpler but still public. All these benefits were stopped if a person did more than a very small amount of work.

The development of National Insurance meant that fewer people had to claim means tested benefits. Means testing can be seen as rewarding people for being poor. More recently various ideas have been suggested to reward people for working, even if they cannot do much work. Basic income is one.

In the United Kingdom there has been a shift towards more means-tested benefits and away from those based on National Insurance. [5]


  1. Erdkamp, Paul, "The Food Supply of the Capital," in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 262-264
  2. Law relating to the relief of the poor (2 ed.). London: Poor Law Publications. 1924. p. 2.
  3. "The principle of 'less eligibility'". Retrieved 2023-01-29.
  4. "National Assistance Act 1948". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 January 2023.
  5. "Social Insecurity". The Inquiry. Retrieved 2023-03-10.