Work Requirements Would Undo A Signature Biden AccomplishmentRoundup
tags: social welfare, Social Policy
Molly Michelmore is an associate professor of history at Washington & Lee University and the author of Tax and Spend: The Welfare State, Tax Politics and the Limits of American Liberalism.
Democrats seem to have a $1.75 trillion deal in place to advance big chunks of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Yet, the compromises required to secure support from moderates have infuriated many on the left, including sacrificing paid family leave and Medicare drug price negotiation. Yet, maybe the biggest loss won’t receive as much attention. The bill extends the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), but only for one more year before Congress would need to renew it again. To paraphrase President Biden, this program is a Big Effing Deal — extending it permanently had the potential to be as consequential for children as the Social Security Act of 1935 was for seniors.
Economists estimate that the expanded CTC, if made permanent, could lift more than 4 million children out of poverty — a reduction of 40 percent.
The key to this reduction is enabling even families with no earnings to qualify for the full credit.
But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), whose opposition torpedoed the paid leave program, also worries that the CTC — as well as the broader Build Back Better agenda — would produce what he calls an “entitlement society.” In early September, Manchin told CNN, “if we’re going to help the children … the people should make some effort.” One solution? Work requirements.
Manchin and other proponents of work and training requirements argue that they encourage poor families to develop “better skill sets.” Pointing to the supposed success of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the conservative American Enterprise Institute claims that “work requirements for parents receiving public aid lead to better outcomes for their children” including “higher graduation rates, better access to health care, and better economic mobility when they grow up.”
But there is little evidence — contemporary or historical — to support such rosy claims. This is because work requirements have never been about helping the poor. Rather, proponents care more about saving money, scoring political points and policing the line between those deemed deserving of public assistance and those who are not. Too often, work requirements have actually hurt the people who need help the most. That would certainly be the case with the CTC, with the damage coming at the expense of children.
Work requirements have a long history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, social welfare reformers in the United States and elsewhere divided the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories. Those who were unable to work — because of age, disability or ill-health — deserved pity and a subsidy, albeit a meager one. Reformers dubbed the “able-bodied poor,” by contrast, undeserving and often consigned them to the “work house.”
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