Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

And therein lies an unhappy tale about politics and the social safety net, and how hard it is to strengthen it.

When the American Rescue Plan was enacted in 2021, it took the Child Tax Credit and expanded its size and eligibility, made it “fully refundable” (meaning it would even go to families that did not owe taxes to the government), and began delivering its benefits as monthly payments delivered directly into bank accounts. For families whose struggles had been exacerbated by the pandemic, it proved to be a literal life saver, and — in a significant departure from traditional welfare programs — left it to the parents to decide where that money was most needed. For some, it went to food; for some, getting their kids to the dentist; for some, paying for child care.

Here’s how the New Republic summarized its impact:

“The result was vastly beneficial: In the six months of the expanded CTC, the overall rate of child poverty in the United States was slashed by 30 percent; food insufficiency was cut by 26 percent. An August report from the Niskanen Center predicted that the CTC would ‘boost consumer spending by $27 billion, generate $1.9 billion in revenues from state and local sales taxes, and support over 500,000 full time jobs at the median wage.’”

The 2021 law only authorized a year of payments, partly because it was expensive and partly because Democrats believed the program would be so popular among voters that politicians wouldn’t let it expire. Some on the left saw it as evidence that Joe Biden would indeed be an FDR-like president, leaving a transformed welfare state behind him.

But one key political player saw the expanded Child Tax Credit in very different terms. West Virginia Sen Joe Manchin, who had repeatedly upended the Democrats’ ambitious social spending plans and whose support was crucial to whatever legislative success his party would achieve, was an adamant opponent of the credit. Without work requirements, he argued, people would simply opt out of the work force. Ultimately, given that success or failure rode on Manchin’s vote, party leaders didn’t include the program in their last-ditch effort to salvage Biden’s agenda, the Inflation Reduction Act.

The impact of the end of the CTC, like its enactment, was swift and dramatic. By one count, some 4 million children returned to poverty. And according to one prominent Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg, its expiration also may hurt Democratic prospects in the fall campaign.

Though Greenberg notes in the American Prospect that the program polls well, he has his suspicions for why Democratic leaders are ignoring it: “I think the main reason is that Democratic elected leaders see their political base as increasingly college-educated women voters in better-educated suburbs and economically dynamic metropolitan areas. And they believe their diverse base of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans are motivated by identity politics more than economic issues.”

It seems the battle for Congress is being fought in the nation’s middle-class suburbs, and that for Democrats, the votes will be won or lost on the issues of abortion, immigration, crime and the danger of Trumpism. The rescue of millions of children from poverty does not seem likely to resonate in the 2022 battlegrounds. And there may be broader currents at work.

As Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a prime proponent of the program and Greenberg’s wife, puts it bluntly in her book, the biggest obstacle is simply “indifference to the condition of children, particularly poor children.”

There remains in our politics a powerful strain that sees a social program aimed at the plight of the poor as a boondoggle, a reward for the “undeserving.” It’s why voters will often support social programs when they are for everyone — Social Security and Medicare, for example — but not when they are directed to “them.”

If there’s a case for optimism about the credit, it’s that a number of Republicans, most notably Sen. Mitt Romney, appear willing to support some form of it. And the success of the expanded credit in its brief life has clearly strengthened the case for direct cash payments, which have the virtue of appealing to liberals and conservatives alike — liberals because of its impact on the lives of the poor, conservatives because it does away with intrusive government regulations. If the expanded Child Tax Credit gains new life in the lame duck session, it will leaven the depressing fact that one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in decades was smothered in its crib.

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