This policy is a revolutionary shift in how government aid is disbursed: It’s all cash, in most cases goes directly into people’s bank accounts and comes with no strings attached. If it reaches all the families it’s supposed to, the plan will cut child poverty by 45 percent, according to analysts at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, and translate into major improvements in nutrition, educational achievement and mental health. It is long overdue.
It’s almost too obvious to point out that the best way to lower poverty is to give money to people who need it. But in an America with a raging skepticism of government, a policy like this takes finesse to sell and some real magic to maintain. The Biden administration clearly understands the curious psychology some Americans have about entitlements: Some people who benefit from them often resent their existence. The White House should build on those insights and push for more.
The first smart move was universalizing the benefit. One of the reasons Social Security and Medicare remain so popular is that Americans don’t consider either “welfare,” relief sent to the needy at others’ expense. The child credit is designed to work the same way: The poorest Americans are eligible, but so is most of the middle class. It’s a strategy that produces buy-in up and down the income ladder.
The second smart move? Taking credit. President Biden is literally putting his name on this benefit. American families all received a letter announcing the new policy, addressed to “My fellow American” and signed by the president. For once, Biden has behaved more like his self-aggrandizing predecessor than his former partner, President Barack Obama, who in 2009 buried what could have been a politically beneficial $116 billion tax cut by implementing it through an obscure decrease in payroll tax withholding.
The thing is, President Donald Trump was on to something. A lack of modesty sometimes builds goodwill and reminds people of something basic: The government is helping you! In this case, so are Democrats! (The fact that zero Republicans voted for the relief bill that included the new money goes too often unmentioned.)
And finally, this benefit is for the kids. That’s an indispensable step in selling it to lawmakers and voters. Kids are costly and come with all sorts of unexpected needs, and giving parents money for such things lifts a lot of boats. It is not surprising that more cities and states are moving in that direction. But for years, doing so without demanding work alongside the cash has been seen as a road to dependence, grift and ruin. You can’t accuse children of that! In a country that professes to love its kids (even if the evidence remains mixed), they’re the perfect shield for a radical policy change.
Plus, though the new expanded child tax credit is set to expire at the end of 2021, it makes its own case for renewal. After this year is out, Democrats will ask: “Do you want to plunge all of those children we helped back into poverty?” Conservatives especially talk a big game about caring for children. They should get held to it.
The expanded child tax credit isn’t perfect. It is underpublicized, and it’s likely that a good number of beneficiaries aren’t aware of its availability. As recently as June 1, more than half of likely voters knew little or nothing about the upcoming credit, according to polling by Data for Progress.
And our government’s steam-powered technology makes getting the benefit harder. If families filed their taxes in 2020, they’re already getting their checks in the mail or through direct deposit. But if they didn’t (as is the case for many of the poorest families, who had minimal taxable income), they must apply through the Internal Revenue Service’s creaky “non-filer portal.” And that website is available only in English, does not work on cellphones and is the opposite of intuitive — all significant obstacles, especially for those who could use the benefit most. Some estimates suggest the digital shortcomings of the IRS — an agency kept on a strict gruel-and-water budget by Republicans for years — mean that 90 percent of children whose parents don’t regularly file taxes may not be set up to receive their benefits. Memo to the White House: Get this fixed.
There were sure to be fumbles in a rollout of this size, but the expanded child tax credit is a watershed movement in how we think about helping others — and a template for effective anti-poverty policy in the future. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” the slogan for a very different product once boasted. If the Biden administration continues to play things wisely, it has the chance to go even further.