Giving Compass' Take:
- Oshan Jarow highlights the success of the expanded child tax credit to explain why unconditional anti-poverty programs are more effective.
- What role can you play in supporting effective anti-poverty policies?
- Read about rising child poverty after the end of the expanded child tax credit.
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Since 1975, politicians have built huge portions of the American safety net — like the child tax credit (CTC) — around the idea that excluding the poorest Americans from government assistance will motivate them to climb out of deep poverty on their own and get a job.
This long-standing bipartisan consensus is manifest in the twin ideas of work and income requirements. Work requirements are simple: You either have a job or you don’t, and that binary is what determines whether you’re eligible for a handful of welfare programs.
Income requirements are a little wonkier. They stipulate that anyone without any income will receive no benefits. Only after earned income surpasses a specified level do benefits begin kicking in — which is where we get another dry name: “phase-ins.”
In practice, benefitting from programs with income requirements is conditional on already having a job. If you’re unemployed and have no other income, you’re out of luck. In the CTC, phase-ins exclude some 19 million children whose parents don’t have enough income to meet the requirement for receiving the full benefit, while the US retains some of the highest child poverty and mortality rates among peer countries.
The consensus excluding the poorest Americans from some forms of government assistance through phase-ins held until President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan. Its anti-poverty centerpiece was to cut phase-ins from the existing CTC and crank up the payment, creating what’s known as the expanded CTC.
The results were historic. Over the course of 2021, child poverty was cut nearly in half, and the long-running fear at the heart of the American welfare system — that unconditional aid would discourage work — never came to pass.
Then, to the dismay of advocates and recipients alike, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) blocked the Democratic Party’s effort to make the expansion permanent, fearing, among other familiar concerns like the cost, that recipients would just buy drugs (the data shows that recipients spent the money on food, clothes, utilities, rent, and education). Come 2022, phase-ins returned to the CTC, approximately 3.7 million children were immediately thrust back into poverty in January, and the rest of the year saw the sharpest rise in the history of recorded child poverty rates.
Phase-ins have long had critics across the political aisle, but their arguments have generally been grounded in small-scale pilot experiments, appeals to morality, or even philosophizing about human nature. Now that we have real-world evidence from a nationwide, year-long experiment, the expanded CTC’s success should ignite efforts to roll back phase-ins across the board. That also means cutting them from the CTC’s sister program, the earned income tax credit (EITC), which phases in as a supplement to wages for low-income Americans and helps about 31 million Americans.
The expanded CTC is estimated to have reduced child poverty rates anywhere from 29 percent to 43 percent, with the vast majority of that drop attributable to removing phase-ins. Extending that success to include the EITC would cut child poverty by an estimated 64 percent.
Read the full article about anti-poverty programs by Oshan Jarow at Vox.