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Opinion Why conservatives shouldn’t worry about child tax credits

A child is lifted by her parents at a street corner in downtown Seattle in March 2015. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Americans will start receiving monthly checks worth up to $300 per child from the federal government this Thursday, an advance on the child tax credit that Congress increased as part of the American Rescue Plan. Some conservatives have argued that this money will make recipients more dependent on government largesse. They needn’t worry. Americans have been dependent on government for decades — and they like it.

Conservatives have long feared the psychological impact of government dependence. The more Americans rely on government for their well-being, the reasoning goes, the less likely they are to try to fend for themselves. Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, food stamps and welfare have all been criticized as producing passivity and hopelessness among their recipients.

There’s no doubt that this critique has some merit. Psychologists note that “learned helplessness” is real; a person can simply stop trying to improve themselves when they repeatedly face obstacles or setbacks that they believe they cannot overcome. At one extreme, government income support programs can help foster this pathology because they shield people from the worst consequences of failure. This is a real problem that warrants attention.

But that does not describe the lives of most Americans who receive government benefits. The vast majority of people who will collect these new checks already work, and they aren’t going to stop working or trying to better themselves because they get a few hundred dollars a month from Uncle Sam. Australia introduced a similar program, the Family Tax Benefit, in 2000. That program sends most Australian parents checks worth hundreds of dollars every two weeks. It has not caused dramatic drops in labor force participation, increased demand for universal basic incomes or even dramatic rises in government spending. Australia’s tax burden as a share of gross domestic product is only slightly larger than the United States’ and one of the lowest in the developed world.

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The fact is that Americans are already dependent on government for a large part of their income and consumption. Public education is a case in point: The median state spends roughly $12,000 a year per child for K-12 schooling. That means the average family with two children in public school receives $24,000 per year in state subsidies for their children, much more than almost all families pay in state and local taxes. This is a massive case of government dependency and is surely one reason why it is almost impossible to cut education spending except in cases of severe economic crisis. This dependency doesn’t corrupt the recipient; the parents keep working, and most students graduate and enter the workforce ready and eager to contribute.

This example is not unique. Health care is underwritten by government spending, either directly through programs such as Medicare or Medicaid or indirectly through the exclusion of employer-paid health insurance premiums from income and payroll taxes. Social Security provides about half of the income for the average recipient, including 60 percent of middle-income retired Americans. Government directly employs more than 20 million people and indirectly employs millions more through its spending or regulations. Americans have built a mixed economy that balances private enterprise and government dependency, and most see no reason to change.

Conservatives are right to worry about the ratchet effect of government spending. Insiders can capture programs and turn them to their own benefit, whether it’s farmers who milk farm subsidies to jack up already high incomes or public employee unions that use government monopolies to create huge, fiscally dangerous pension programs. Colleges and universities are some of the worst offenders, using government grants and guaranteed loans to hike tuition ever higher while dramatically increasing administrative and support staff. The cost of government can easily get out of control unless these pernicious practices are constantly monitored and controlled.

Doing that effectively, though, means a shift in conservative attitudes. The mixed-economy ship has sailed; people have found that they live happier, wealthier and more secure lives with a combination of government support and private activity. But Americans don’t like thieves. They don’t like government employees making significantly more money than they do for similar work, as former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker proved in his successful battles against his state’s public employee unions. They don’t like it when people who can work don’t, which is why work requirements for government programs are wildly popular in polls. And they don’t like it when the well-to-do get things they don’t deserve, like when wealthy people pay no taxes or get a benefit they don’t need.

Battling government bloat means making moral arguments about who deserves help, not complaining about mythical government dependency. Conservatives can win that battle, if they choose to fight it.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: The child cash benefit could give families security and flexibility they’ve never known

Christine Emba: When it comes to Biden’s child-care provisions, the GOP actually has a point

Helaine Olen: Home health care belongs in the infrastructure package. We all pay for it anyway.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Break’s over. Will Democrats act?