This is extraordinary. In a nation where people who need to rely on welfare to get by are routinely derided as “takers,” Joe Biden and congressional Democrats sold the nation on the largest expansion of the social safety net since the Great Society initiatives of the 1960s, and they did it in less than two months.
Here’s the secret: By ignoring decades of so-called Washington wisdom about the need for narrowly targeted aid and small steps forward, this legislation allows us to sidestep our societal tripwires around race, poverty and who we think is deserving of a government assist.
The American Rescue Plan assumes that almost everyone can use a helping hand. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, roughly 85 percent of adults and children will receive a stimulus payment — meaning, as Biden said in his Thursday night speech, that “a typical family of four earning about $110,000 will get checks for $5,600.” The yearlong expansion of the earned-income tax credit will significantly reduce child poverty, and the additional child tax credit will impact more than 90 percent of households with children under the age of 17. And for those who receive their health insurance through a federal exchange, not only are subsidies upped for two years but premium payments also are capped at 8.5 percent of household income. There’s $39 billion in aid for child-care centers, and $29 billion in help for restaurants.
In her recent book “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee points out that in the 1950s, almost two-thirds of White Americans said they believed it was the role of government to offer a job to anyone who needs one, and provide a minimum standard of living to all. A decade later, support for the same position collapsed. She points to the civil rights movement as the reason, and it’s hard to disagree.
The pushback to Great Society expansions of the social safety net was often just thinly veiled (if that) racism: Remember that Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” was a Black woman. The same phenomenon occurred during the initial fight over the Affordable Care Act — Rush Limbaugh claimed, “This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.” Even in 2021, the Center for American Progress found that support for changes to the social safety net that make it more generous garner significantly more support when described as helping “those living in poverty," but falls off when described as helping “Black Americans and Hispanics.”
The simplest way out of this toxic dilemma is to make benefits so generous they are near universal. This is why Social Security is all but untouchable and why Medicare, once controversial, is now so popular that the slogan for people who want to see universal, government guaranteed health-care coverage is “Medicare for All.”
The idea that we should help only the utterly destitute — no matter how well meant — just leads to less support for helping almost anyone, not just Blacks and Latinos. When you offer government safety-net assistance only to the most badly off, those just slightly above them on the income scale tend to get angry. “It seems to me that people who earn nothing and contribute nothing get everything for free,” as a woman not eligible for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act told the New York Times in 2018.
Of course, Biden doesn’t deserve sole credit for this new strategy. Long-time progressive agitation for these exact changes played a role, and they put pressure on the new administration to act. But it’s also true that Biden, with a longtime record as a fiscal moderate, made it clear this was more than just a simple left-wing wish list.
Now our new president has raised the bar — and then some — for what kind of help Americans can expect from our government in future economic downturns. Yes, many of the benefits for individuals and families are temporary, but, it’s almost certain that the expansion will create a large constituency for making them permanent. This bill is a remarkable and amazing achievement.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to former congressman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). This version has been updated.