Although some support for government aid waned as the pandemic wore on, the relief legislation President Biden signed in March included a significant one-year child tax credit. The benefit, paid as a monthly allowance, is on track to cut child poverty by 40 percent.
Popularity seemed inevitable. In many European countries, after all, child allowances are embraced not only on the left but also by many on the right, who see them as promoting “family values.”
Not so in the United States, where the credit has become mired in historical distrust of government aid and arguments over work requirements. These negative perceptions reflect the limited possibilities for government benefits of the sort that other nations take for granted — and how unlikely our status quo is to change.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) might, as Politico put it, perhaps be the only Democrat in Congress who isn’t a “huge fan” of the credit’s current structure, but his views aren’t uncommon. A Morning Consult poll in July — the same month that payments started going out to families — found that more than half believed the credit should be a temporary measure. Polling published in September by YouGov and the conservative publication American Compass found majority support for permanent expansion only when the benefit was combined with a work requirement. (Manchin has variously proposed adding work requirements and limiting the payments to households earning $60,000 or less.)
Other Democratic initiatives, such as universal pre-K, enjoy robust support. But no-strings-attached disbursements stir complicated reactions. One theory holds that making about 90 percent of U.S. households eligible for a child allowance runs roughshod over traditional American beliefs in the value of work. When the Institute for Family Studies, a right-leaning think tank, conducted focus groups in the spring, one participant called the payments “unfair,” adding: “It’s going to just allow them to abuse it, not have to work.”
Actually, no. Both Columbia University and the American Enterprise Institute have found that the expanded credit has had, at most, a minor impact on employment. For every recipient who admitted the extra money allowed them to remain outside the workforce, AEI found another who claimed the monthly funds allowed them to take on more paid responsibilities. And in other prosperous countries that offer child allowances, such as Canada, employment rates for women are generally higher than they are here.
Women’s participation in the U.S. workforce has declined to 1988 levels, and women count for nearly two of every three labor-force dropouts since the pandemic hit, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Increased caregiver burdens are a more likely culprit than the $423 a typical family receives each month through the Biden tax credit. That sum is not lottery-winnings wealth but still enough to make a critical difference in whether parents can afford diapers or to put enough food on the table. The number of families saying they experienced difficulty affording food decreased when payments began going out, according to Census Bureau data.
Tensions over the credit reflect not just flawed Democratic messaging but also Americans’ skewed perceptions of benefits programs. Workers pay into Social Security and Medicare, so many view those benefits as ones they previously earned. But almost every Medicare recipient costs the system over time. And while future Social Security recipients are likely to put more money into the system than they take out, many current retirees have done the opposite. Meanwhile, social-safety-net programs are often devised with benefit cliffs that cut off aid for even minor increases in income. The result? Many come to feel beneficiaries are rewarded for not doing their part, while others are punished for the temerity of attempting to improve their circumstances.
Skepticism of the child tax credit is similarly convoluted, as other comments from the Institute for Family Studies focus group show. One woman admitted she was able to access Head Start only by claiming she didn’t work when she actually did. “It seems like the people who are not working seem like they’re better off, because they get all the assistance,” she said. Another participant said, “I think the middle class is struggling more than the lower class, because the lower class has so many more opportunities for programs.”
Many Americans need help. Decades of austerity politics for everyone but the wealthiest Americans — who benefit from tax cut after tax cut — appear to have left many of us skeptical that government will finally deliver. And negotiations over what initiatives to include in Democrats’ Build Back Better legislation might be inflaming this distrust. A one-year extension of the credit doesn’t signal reliability, nor do threats to trim back eligibility.
Democrats have helped millions of American families, particularly poor children. But instead of building on that success, they’re allowing it to slip away — and ultimately fueling more cynicism about government.