What’s more important than slashing child poverty?
By E.J. Dionne Jr.,
Discussions of President Biden’s proposals are too often dominated by talk of “left-wing” this or “centrist” that, as if ideological labels matter more than substance. And a quiet struggle within the Democratic Party that could have a decisive impact on child poverty should not be reduced to such prefabricated punditry.
The issue is whether to make permanent Biden’s improvements to the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit that were part of the $1.9 trillion rescue package. They should be.
The changes increased the size of the child tax credit and made sure its benefits flow to our nation’s poorest families. The measures will cut child poverty nearly in half and put the United States on the same moral page as other wealthy democracies. Our peers recognize investments in the well-being of children and families as the smartest, most decent things governments can do.
The child credit helps about 90 percent of U.S.families — only the best off face a cutoff. This means that it reaches into the middle class, helping families of every race and background. But because of the concentration of poverty among Black and Latino children, it is especially helpful to the least privileged among us.
The recent changes also rectify a core flaw in our social insurance system. We rightly do a lot to help older Americans, and Social Security has radically cut poverty among the elderly. Comparatively, we have done little for kids.
That’s why Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a decades-long advocate of a more generous child credit and a leader in the effort to make it permanent, speaks of the credit as “social security for kids.
“Social Security lifted 90 percent of seniors out of poverty. It transformed their lives,” she said in an interview. “We have never done anything comparable for the lives of children.”
In principle, just about every Democrat, including Biden, wants to make the earned income and child credit improvements permanent. Late last month, 41 senators, representing a broad range of opinion in the Democratic caucus — from Mark R. Warner (Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) to Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Edward J. Markey (Mass.) — wrote to Biden arguing that enshrining the changes in law was essential to “a sustained and equitable recovery.”
But doing so wouldn’t be cheap, especially in light of budget conventions that measure long-term spending in 10-year increments. Multiplying everything by 10 can create sticker shock. That’s why the administration, which has a lot of other priorities to squeeze into Biden’s next big proposal, has floated the idea expanding the child credit only to 2025.
That would cost less than $500 billion. But it also puts the expanded credit at far greater risk if Republicans are in control of the White House, Congress or both four years from now. It’s far easier to let a provision expire than to have to vote to repeal it. Consider the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired 10 years later and has never been restored.
Although there is debate about the cost of making the credit permanent, it could run to as much as $1 trillion more over a decade than the 2025 extension. The math is complicated, in part because earlier expansions of the credit in the GOP’s 2017 tax law happen to expire in 2025.
But guess what? Even the high estimate would amount to perhaps half of 1 percent of our projected gross domestic product over a decade. That’s a small price for the well-being of kids, especially since the National Academy of Sciences, as DeLauro pointed out, found that child poverty costs the country up to $1.1 trillion every year.
“When we shortchange kids, we not only hurt them, we also hurt the country as a whole,” said Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Upper-income parents invest a great deal in their children. We need to invest in low-income children and their futures.”
Last month, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) joined a group of supporters of the child credit on the Senate floor to make the case for permanence.
“Poverty is a violence that traumatizes the mind, oppresses the body and bruises the human spirit,” Warnock said. “If Congress can slash child poverty for one year, why wouldn’t we or shouldn’t we do it once and for all?”
Yes, you can empathize with Biden’s ideological and budgetary juggling as he tries to address so many unmet needs (health care, child care, climate, infrastructure and housing among them). But a permanent program to lift up children would be a monument to the social decency he preaches and to the forward-looking government he promised.
Read more: Katrina vanden Heuvel: Biden is facing a Roosevelt moment James Hohmann: Biden is planning for a Great Society 2.0 Greg Sargent: Biden and the Democrats’ body blows to conservatism must keep coming Michael Gerson: The child tax credit is a conservative dream fulfilled. Let’s help make it permanent. Helaine Olen: Joe Biden’s covid-19 relief bill is an extraordinary achievement