Easing working and low-income families’ financial burdens continues to be central in the latest iteration of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. That includes a one-year extension of the expanded child tax credit, a long-standing benefit that Biden’s American Rescue Plan changed in key ways — including sending monthly checks of up to $300 per child to most households, beginning in mid-July.
Conservative critics disparage this as “welfare.” Others demand that the benefits come with strings attached, including work and education requirements. Our research shows that while Americans generally support the child tax credit, they’re not enthusiastic about sending money to families with children. However, they were also ambivalent about requiring recipients to work. Here’s what we found.
The history behind the child tax credit
Launched under President Bill Clinton in 1997, the Child Tax Credit was originally a nonrefundable tax credit for families with children. Nonrefundable here means that if a taxpayer’s credit is higher than the amount of tax owed, the excess will not be refunded — thus leaving out the families most in need of support. In 2001, under President George W. Bush, the tax credit increased from $500 to $1,000 and became partly refundable for some low-income workers — meaning that if the credit was more than some low-income taxpayers owed the government, they received a tax refund. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump further expanded the credit. Despite previous expansions, until very recently the families of one-third of American children did not receive the full credit because they did not earn enough to qualify.
Biden’s expanded version is more generous, in part because it is fully refundable. Besides sending monthly checks from July until December, the American Rescue Plan also increased the benefit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and to $3,000 for children between ages 6 and 17. According to the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University, in September 2021, the expanded child tax credit kept 3.4 million children from poverty, enabling families to pay for such basic items as food, housing, clothing, and education.
How we did our research
In August, we fielded the first wave of an online survey with a YouGov panel of 1,200 respondents who were drawn to be nationally representative. Fully 57 percent of our respondents favored the child tax credit, while only 21 percent were against it. Still, we found even stronger support for other social programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Earned Income Tax Credit. For instance, 66 percent favored SNAP and only 15 percent opposed it.
When we compared different groups’ levels of support for the child tax credit, we found the expected trends. Americans whose income was lower than $50,000 were more likely to be supportive; racial minorities supported it more than Whites; Democrats supported it more than Republicans; and liberals were noticeably more supportive than moderates, who were similarly more supportive than conservatives.
We also asked whether recipients of government benefits should be required to work. Ten percent said recipients should never be required to work; 59 percent said they should be sometimes; and 31 percent said always. Not surprisingly, those who thought recipients should never be required to work were much more likely to support the child tax credit (75 percent) than those who thought they should always be required to work (37 percent).
Who deserves social support programs?
Our respondents were more likely to support social programs helping older and disabled people (81 percent and 85 percent respectively) than families with children (63 percent) — or people with low incomes (65 percent). Apparently, Americans are fairly united in seeing older and disabled people as “deserving” — but are more divided about whether poor people or people with children universally deserve support.
Family benefits could boost the birthrate and increase child well-being
Social science research regularly finds that economic support for families is associated with improved child well-being, including better health, academic performance and future earnings. Yet, the United States spends significantly less on social supports than do other advanced democracies. It’s at the bottom of the spending scale for toddler care and other family supports like cash benefits. As the United States continues to become more polarized by party, expanding family benefits will continue to be an uphill battle. Meanwhile, U.S. birthrates are at a record low, and women without children list financial worries as their top reason for delaying parenthood. A Pew Research Center report wrote that record low fertility rates “may partly reflect long-lasting effects of the Great Recession of the late 2000s; when there is an economic downturn, people tend to postpone having children.”
In 1974, political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote that “a new policy creates a new politics.” As low- and middle-income families rely on the child tax credit payments, they may come to demand that it continue, as happened with such programs as Social Security and Medicare — that is, if Democrats can keep it as they pass their Build Back Better bill.
Mariely López-Santana (@marielylopezs) is an associate professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The New Governance of Welfare States in the United States and Europe: Between Decentralization and Centralization in the Activation Era” (SUNY Press, 2015).
Lucas Núñez is an assistant professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.