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Opinion | Helping Kids Is a Very Good Idea

Some things about American politics are completely predictable, even in a time of insurrection and QAnon craziness. Anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade knew that as soon as a Democrat took the White House, Republicans would instantly do another 180-degree turn on budget deficits.

Remember, the G.O.P. went from hyperventilating about debt as an existential threat during the Obama years to complete indifference about deficits under Donald Trump. Surely nobody is surprised to see Republicans immediately revert to deficit hysteria now that Joe Biden is president.

Why are Republicans suddenly peddling debt phobia again? Their usual argument is that federal debt is a burden on future generations; I and others have spent considerable time trying to explain that this is bad economics.

But leave the economics of debt aside. Shouldn’t politicians who claim to be terribly worried about the future of America’s children support, you know, actually helping America’s children today?

That’s not a hypothetical question. Democrats are reportedly working on legislation that would offer monthly payments to most American families with children, and could, among other things, cut child poverty roughly in half.

One especially good thing about the legislation in the works is that Democrats finally seem to have broken free of Republican framing, under which every benefit takes the form of a tax credit. This will apparently be a straightforward proposal to send money to qualifying families.

Assuming that Democrats can eventually get past Mitch McConnell’s attempt to, in effect, prevent the party that won the election from taking control of the Senate, Republicans will soon have to vote on this legislation. How will they justify voting no?

Some background: America stands out among wealthy countries for its failure to provide much help to families with children. U.S. expenditures on family benefits as a share of G.D.P. are less than a third the rich-nation average. Largely as a consequence, we have a much higher rate of child poverty than our peers.

Our stinginess does a lot of harm. Economists have shown that previous extensions of aid to families with children, like the gradual rollout of food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s and the expansion of Medicaid in the 1980s, didn’t just improve children’s lives in the short run; children who received the aid grew into healthier, more productive adults than those who didn’t receive the aid. By not doing even more for children, we are stunting their future, and that of the nation as a whole.

But can we afford to do more? Independent estimates of the cost of something like the reported Democratic proposal put its price tag at roughly $120 billion a year. To put this in perspective, it’s only about half the 2021 revenue loss caused by the 2017 tax cut.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

  • Neil Eggleston and Alexa Kissinger, officials in the Obama administration, write that the president must act quickly “to unwind former President Donald Trump’s four-year effort to ‘deconstruct the administrative state.’”
  • Boris Muñoz argues that as an extension of defending democracy at home, the president must “actively engage with Latin American countries to protect human rights, help fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law in the region.”
  • Jean Guerrero writes that if Biden wants to address injustice in immigration policy, he must go beyond reversing Trump’s policies and “repair the harm that was done when he was vice president, which left communities fractured and financially devastated.”
  • Kristin Lin surveyed nonprofit workers on the front lines of pandemic relief. They detailed “a mounting crisis for the millions of Americans who face long-term unemployment, hunger, cascading bills and threats of eviction,” and how federal aid could help.
  • Claudia Sahm, an economist, writes that Biden’s stimulus plans should be open-ended and that Americans “deserve the peace of mind of knowing that relief will continue as long as they need it.”

And aid to children would achieve what proponents of the tax cut promised but failed to deliver: an improvement in America’s long-run economic prospects. If the children we help today grow up into healthier, more productive adults than they would otherwise — which they will — that will eventually mean higher G.D.P.

And aid to children would also indirectly help the budget, because those children would later pay more in taxes and be less likely to call on safety net programs. These fiscal benefits might even be big enough that helping children pays for itself, and in any case they mean that the true cost of aiding children, even in narrowly fiscal terms, would be less than it might appear.

All in all, then, increased aid to families with children is a really good idea. It would immediately improve millions of Americans’ lives, it would make us stronger in the future, and it would have only modest budget costs. So how will Republicans in Congress justify opposing it? Because you know that most, if not all, of them will.

One answer, of course, is that they’ll yell about fiscal responsibility and hope that voters have very short memories.

Another answer is that they’ll claim that the Biden administration and its allies have a “radical leftist agenda” — because nothing screams fanatical Marxism like giving kids enough to eat and a roof over their heads — and hope that voters don’t figure out what Democrats are actually proposing. (This goes for much more than child credits: Polls suggest that on issues like taxes and health care, Republicans, not Democrats, are the radicals whose views are out of touch with public opinion.)

Finally, we’ll surely hear some version of the standard conservative argument that any policy reducing misery reduces the incentive to be self-sufficient — you know, unemployment insurance encourages people to stay unemployed, food stamps encourage them to be lazy, and so on. Making this argument about a broad-based program to help children will be hard, but they’ll find a way.

One thing I don’t expect, however, is any kind of good-faith argument against aid to families with children. That’s not to say that the Democratic proposal will be perfect; no doubt experts will see ways it could be better. But spending more on children is a very good idea, economically and morally, and should become law.

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