Members Only | September 13, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Make ‘Social Security for children’ permanent
What would the United States look like if we decided that children and their families had a right to abundance and liberty?
One of Joe Biden’s signature achievements was passing the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC). It pulled millions of children out of poverty. Yet no sooner had the policy proven effective than it lapsed.
Checks stopped. Children fell back into poverty. The CTC quietly disappeared from the Democrats’ agenda, to be mentioned only quietly and in passing as the congressional elections approach.
All thanks to Republican opposition.
Why aren’t Democrats running on the Child Tax Credit the way they are running on social security and abortion rights?
Stanley Greenberg at the American Prospect argues that Democrats simply do not understand the importance of working-class issues.
There’s something to that. But I think that the Child Tax Credit has also suffered from its own efficiency. The CTC is in many ways the perfect wonky technocratic antipoverty solution, delivering targeted and direct aid to the neediest in the least wasteful way possible.
The elegance has muted opposition to an extent. But it’s also led proponents to underplay its transformative effects and to frame it as a limited program to fix social glitches, rather than as a sweeping assertion of children’s rights to flourish. Bolder claims and less focused demands, may make it easier to rally support for a vital program.
The Child Tax Credit has been around since 1997. As the name suggests, it gives working families with children a tax rebate.
But the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) expanded and transformed the program into what had been essentially a regular cash payment for low-income families with children.
It increased annual payments from $2,000 to $3,600 per child under 6 and to $3,000 between 6 and 17. It closed a loophole that shut out a third of children if their parents’ earnings were too low. Instead of a lump sum, it provided for monthly checks of $250 to $300 per child.
The results were stunning.
In the six months the program operated, child poverty plummeted by 30 percent. Food insufficiency fell by 26 percent. Each month, the program kept more than 3 million children out of poverty.
Researchers found that 91 percent of families spent the money on basics. There was no evidence that the money led people to quit their jobs or stop looking for work. Nonetheless, Republicans and conservative Democrats like US Senator Joe Manchin decided the payments were coddling the poor, and refused to renew them.
Predictable result: 3.7 million children fell back into poverty.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer.
The expanded CTC ensured food, shelter and basic needs for the poorest children in the United States. You’d think Democrats would tout such a successful program. But they’ve been oddly reticent.
As Greenberg points out, Biden has included the expanded CTC in speeches only sporadically. Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders has championed it. But even he and other progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have tended to emphasize it less than (also important!) programs like Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness and climate legislation.
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They’re probably lukewarm about the CTC because the public has been. The policy has majority support, but it’s not overwhelming. A December 2021 poll on renewing the credit showed 47-42 percent in favor. That’s a lot less than the support for expanding Medicare, which some polls have found has a whopping 83% approval.
The Times speculated that the CTC might be unpopular because older voters aren’t interested in giving money to needy children, or because the cost (about $25 billion a year) is too high.
But student loan forgiveness also helps the young. The cost is somewhere around $500 billion over a decade. It polls better than the CTC, with 51-39 percent approve for student loan forgiveness.
So why hasn’t the expanded CTC caught the public imagination? Maybe the problem is not that the program is too generous and ambitious, but that it’s not generous and ambitious enough.
The expanded Child Tax Credit is a good example of a program rooted in what sociologist Elizabeth Popp Berman calls “the economic style” of policy thinking. In her book, Thinking Like an Economist: How Efficiency Replaced Equality in US Public Policy, published in June, Berman argues that this economic style has become entrenched in Washington over the last 60 years.
The economic style, Berman said, prioritizes efficiency and targeted interventions to help those in most need at the least cost. The expanded CTC sends money directly to low-income children. For every dollar spent, society gets back 84 cents in reduced healthcare and welfare costs. It’s a targeted, thrifty, efficient program.
The problem with efficiency, though, is that it fails to capture the imagination. Medicare for All proponents do say our current healthcare system is an expensive mess. But the real force is the insistence that health care is not a privilege, but a right. The climate movement is not just about more efficient, cleaner production. It’s about the imperative to preserve our planet for coming generations.
As Berman points out, the biggest social programs of the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations weren’t advertised to voters on the basis of efficiency. The New Deal and the War on Poverty were presented as necessary expenditures to assure equality and a social safety net for all. They promised to transform the nation, not make it more efficient. As Lyndon Johnson said:
The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
Compare that rhetoric to Biden’s antipoverty program — which is called the expanded Child Tax Credit. That is a name that evokes fiddling with the tax code, not equality in our time.
The thing is, though, that the expanded CTC is consistent with expanded dreams. Greenberg suggests the program could be a “Social Security for children” — a framing that could have appeal.
Giving direct payments to children in poverty isn’t really an efficient tax tweak. It’s a bold statement that society owes all its young people food, shelter and some measure of comfort.
In that context, the CTC, for all its success, looks like a start rather than an end point. Cutting child poverty by 30 percent is good. But if we can do that, shouldn’t the goal be to eliminate child poverty?
The program already provided a wealth of information about how to help kids. Establishing it permanently, with a commitment to increase funding, could pull all 11.6 million children in need — 16 percent of all children in the US — above the poverty line.
Passing transformative legislation is difficult. It can take years or decades. It’s possible that if it isn’t seen as transformative, Biden and the Democrats might be quietly able to slip the expanded Child Tax Credit into law with some bipartisan support.
But given the way that momentum for the program has stalled out, it might be worthwhile for activists and progressives to embrace, and emphasize, the Child Tax Credit’s latent radicalism.
What would the United States look like if we decided that children and their families had a right to abundance and liberty? We should make Social Security for children permanent and find out.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.
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