But Manchin’s greatest howler came on Sunday, when Dana Bash of CNN specifically asked whether he supported making the expanded child tax credit permanent. “Let’s make sure,” he said, “we’re getting it to the right people. … There’s no work requirements whatsoever. There’s no education requirements. … Don’t you think if we’re going to help the children, that the people should make some effort?”
It’s a dangerous myth, this idea that government help causes some people to just loaf off. It’s also untrue. Reminder: Before the pandemic, most working-age people receiving benefits like food stamps worked. They just didn’t earn enough money.
The belief that people receiving aid from the government do not — but should — work both plays to and encourages stereotypes that people living in poverty are lazy, irresponsible and looking to get something for nothing. It serves to rationalize letting those in need go without, their economic failures viewed as a failure of morals.
Yet the temporary child tax credit signed into law this year by President Biden demonstrates the opposite. It is an extraordinary success. Almost 90 percent of families with children under age 18 are eligible to receive a monthly check from the federal government through the end of the year. Census Bureau data reveals that within a month of the first checks going out in July, the number of families with children reporting they’d gone hungry within the past month fell significantly. Households also appeared to spend the extra money on things most of us would consider rather important, not to mention virtuous, like buying school supplies and paying down debt.
Nonetheless, there is forever a seductiveness — at least to Americans — to adopt Manchin’s way of thinking. It certainly sounds like common sense. A majority of us want to believe anyone can get ahead in our society if they work hard enough. A poll conducted two decades ago found that a majority of Americans actually believed the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” was in the Bible. It’s not. It is, however, in Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism-heavy, "Poor Richard’s Almanac." Self-help, as I’ve been known to observe, is the American state religion. We almost all worship at its altar, at least some of the time.
Republican pols love to promote the canard that government aid discourages paid employment. Former president Donald Trump — who, let’s remember, inherited his real estate fortune — was also a fan of work requirements. His administration attempted to impose them on non-elderly, non-disabled recipients of Medicaid. Seema Verma, who served as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Trump’s administration, claimed the move would help the people set to lose benefits. Work requirements for non-disabled adults, she said, would improve self-esteem, well-being, health and self-sufficiency.
So it was no surprise that when Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a joint statement in opposition to the initial Biden child tax credits, they also couched it as a way to help families. “This kind of universal basic income makes more Americans dependent on government and severs the vital elements — work, marriage, community, and beyond — required to raise healthy families.”
This kind of thinking is garbage in, garbage out.
Many other developed nations offer almost all residents a child allowance of some sort. And the evidence, here and abroad, shows that such an allowance can increase paid work by recipients. An expansion of the child allowance in Canada raised the employment rate of single mothers. An unpublished paper by the economist Wei Zheng, highlighted late last year by the Niskanen Center, found the same was true for the more limited earned income tax credit in the United States. In fact, most people receiving the current child tax credit are employed; the Treasury Department estimates that over 97 percent of recipients are working families.
If anything, an argument can be made that the children of the irresponsible deserve more support from us, not less. Children can’t push their parents to get with the work-and-education program. As a result, you’re not “helping” children if you insist on financially punishing their parents for not making an “effort.” You are, instead, punishing children for the sins of their caretakers.
Money makes a difference. Studies of the earned income tax credit reveal it results in improvements in infant health. Schoolwork and grades improve. Children in households receiving the benefit are more likely to attend college. All of this, in turn, helps make the United States a wealthier, more prosperous country.
The next time Manchin is tempted to repeat stale and discredited talking points, he might want to remember that human infrastructure matters too.