Democrats have changed their approach to social programs, embracing unconditional cash assistance without the kind of “work requirements” they loved in the Bill Clinton years.
Republicans are saying, “Hey, whatever happened to the ’90s?”
“They want to break the link between work and income,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday. “Democrats are unlearning the commonsense, pro-work lessons of bipartisan welfare reform from back in the ’90s.”
But there’s a big difference between the federal programs Republicans derided as “welfare” in the 20th century and Democrats’ new cash initiative. Welfare was for poor parents. The new program is for most parents.
The American Rescue Plan that Democrats enacted last month will give the majority of parents as much as $300 per child each month starting sometime after July 1, no strings attached. President Joe Biden trumpeted the new child benefit in his address to Congress this week and said lawmakers ought to continue the benefits through 2025.
“With two parents, two kids, that’s $7,200 in the pockets that’s going to help to take care of your family,” Biden said, adding that 65 million children’s parents would get the money and that child poverty would be cut in half.
The Rescue Plan turns the child tax credit into a near-universal monthly benefit by eliminating its earnings requirement and telling the IRS to distribute the money in advance. It’s $300 per month for kids under 6, $250 for kids under 18, and it will put a big dent in child poverty and could become a major part of Biden’s legacy.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the Republican leader in the House, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, have called it “welfare without work.”
“Good jobs and rising paychecks help working families far more than government checks and higher taxes,” Brady said in a statement this week, claiming Republicans want to help working families, just not with “more entitlement programs rife with Washington mandates and fraud.”
Brady cited an American Enterprise Institute analysis finding that the expanded child tax credit will lift 3 million of children out of poverty but reduce employment by as many as 450,000 jobs, because the money would make work less desirable for some parents. (Brady omitted the part about fewer children in poverty.)
Some Republicans favor more direct government support for parents. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have supported expanding the child tax credit. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) even proposed his own version of the child benefit that Democrats included in the American Rescue Plan.
But Rubio and Lee can’t stand just giving parents money without also denying it to parents who don’t work.
“That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance,” the pair said in a joint statement in February, as Democrats moved to enact the Rescue Plan. “Congress should expand the Child Tax Credit without undercutting the responsibility of parents to work to provide for their families.”
As for the welfare reform of the 1990s, the law encouraged states to kick people off benefits if they didn’t have jobs. Enrollment cratered, plunging more families into cashless poverty. But Clinton had won the presidency on a promise to “end welfare as we know it” and Democrats have since shied from supporting programs that give people money ― at least until the coronavirus pandemic came along and Republicans twice embraced unconditional direct cash payments, accompanied by Donald Trump’s signature, to the vast majority of households.
Unlike the welfare reform law, which sought to cut off parents who weren’t trying to work and supposedly didn’t deserve help, the new child tax credit makes hardly any effort to test how deserving its recipients are, except that the benefit diminishes for families with incomes above $150,000.
McConnell is right ― Democrats have unlearned the lessons of bipartisan welfare reform.
“Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we’re on track to cut child poverty in America in half this year,” Biden said during his speech on Wednesday, to a standing ovation from Democrats in the House chamber.
Most Republicans remained in their seats and did not applaud.
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