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- United States Senator from West Virginia
- 46th and current president of the United States
The child tax credit represents one of the most effective youth anti-poverty efforts in modern history, a sweeping program that has fulfilled the too often made promise to lift all boats. Sen. Joe Manchin is trying to drown it in the Potomac.
For a few heady days last week, it looked like House Progressives and the Senate’s two conservative Democrats might actually find a consensus price tag for Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better package.
But that was before Manchin tacked another hundred yards onto the football field Sunday with a new, GOP-approved demand that Democrats incorporate aggressive means testing and strict work requirements to keep a proposed expansion of the popular child tax credit as narrow as possible. While a broader credit would pay off children in West Virginia, the senator hates spending more than he cares about that.
The child tax credit itself isn’t new, but it has always been politically controversial even as it has proven its worth. Originally passed as part of the landmark Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, the same law that gave us Roth IRAs and education savings accounts, the child tax credit offered $400 per child under age 17. The law was and is popular: Nearly six-in-10 American families support it, including 41 percent of Republicans. That’s why lawmakers juiced the credit to $2,000 in 2020 and again to $3,600 under Biden’s American Rescue Plan a year later.
Part of the child tax credit’s popularity comes from how broadly it distributes tangible gains to families in need. According to research by Reuters, the 10 states with the biggest average monthly payments all went with Trump, and nine of them have Republican governors. Just missing out on the top 10, with an average credit received of $431: West Virginia.
The child tax credit isn’t some directionless handout, as Manchin seems to think. It’s had a measurable impact on our fight to reduce poverty, especially in Manchin’s home state. The Brookings Institution projected Biden’s expanded child tax credit will slash child poverty nearly in half across all racial groups, from 14 percent to just 7.5 percent. They weren’t far off. In July, the first of Biden’s expanded tax credit payments lifted some 3 million American kids out of poverty, a 25 percent reduction, and moved millions of struggling families away from total financial collapse.
Those real benefits shouldn’t be lost on Manchin, who serves a state with the sixth-highest poverty rate even before COVID-19. Since the pandemic, West Virginia has tumbled further. Yet Manchin is now dead set on ensuring as few people as possible benefit from a tax credit designed to be utilized as a broad brush—even if his demands kill the entire Build Back Better agenda in the process.
Our most recent congressional crisis stems from the ongoing battle within the Democratic party between the House Progressive Caucus led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, which is fighting for the passage of Biden’s full Build Back Better agenda at its original $3.5 trillion price tag, and Senate conservatives Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are pointedly not advocating anything that can be considered “the Biden agenda.”
Biden was clear: The child tax credit should be applied as broadly as possible to expand on Democrats’ landmark poverty reduction victories. Manchin, on the other hand, insists the child tax credit only go to families earning under $60,000. The median household income in America is only about $63,000, and plenty of families making the median income will tell you it feels an awful lot like poverty. In a dozen states, the household median income is functional poverty.
If progressives were angry before, the chance of Biden once again compromising to his right is likely to send the caucus into a fury. Biden promoted his expanded Child Tax Credit on Twitter just last week. Now Jayapal and progressives worry that Biden’s desire to come away with something ahead of the looming midterm election cycle will mean stripping out everything that makes the Build Back Better agenda such a powerful legislative package.
If the past is any indication, Jayapal and the Progressive Caucus have reason to be worried. In a presidency defined by its compromises, almost all of Biden’s concessions have gone to mollify conservative holdouts Manchin and Sinema. To satisfy the two senators, Jayapal’s Progressive Caucus, which represents 96 lawmakers and aligns much more closely with Democratic voter preferences, is being asked to take one for the team.
Now Jayapal and the left are wondering: which team? Biden sacrificed $800 billion in progressive priorities to pass his bipartisan infrastructure deal. Last week, he cleared the way for nearly $2 trillion in possible compromise cuts for the Build Back Better package—all to gut core progressive spending policies Biden himself vocally supported. Meanwhile, centrist priorities are protected by presidential decree even when they run directly counter to Democratic Party values and run counter to the will of 66 percent of American voters
Manchin claims his position is “moderate,” but it risks leading Biden down a fraught and ultimately losing path built on the delusion that a single West Virginia senator knows the needs of an entire nation better than its own people. House progressives are right to protect the American people from Manchin’s hyper-partisan grasping, even if that means slamming the door on Manchin’s emaciated shadow of a spending package.
Manchin’s demand would drop millions of families from the program and right back into financial peril, including tens of thousands in West Virginia. For Manchin, who holds forth on the Sunday talk shows about the importance of “moderate” governance, stripping millions of Americans off a popular and effective program represents a demand as radical and out-of-touch as any on the right. And in the case of neutering the child tax credit, Manchin goes even further than most Senate Republicans.
Manchin also thinks Americans have gotten lazier over the past year. Despite supporting Biden’s child tax credit in March with no work requirement, Manchin now demands any extension come with a firm rule that all recipients look for work. There’s just one problem: Work requirements have never actually worked. What’s lazy here isn’t families who could use the help, but Manchin’s thinking.
“Agencies that administer public benefit programs are ill-equipped to identify people who should not be subject to work requirements,” CBPP’s LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D., wrote in 2018. “A study by Tennessee’s TANF agency, for example, found that about 30 percent of sanctions in the state were imposed in error.”
It should be no surprise that “work requirements” originated as a GOP attack on the "welfare state" in the 1990s, and The Century Foundation notes that work requirements have never actually been proven to work. At all. As Century Foundation Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick notes, that’s because most federal aid recipients are already likely to return to work within a year. There’s simply no proof a work requirement improves motivation—but it does prevent a lot of eligible people from seeking the help they need.
By pushing the Build Back Better plan ever further to the right, Manchin hopes to pin the package’s failure on progressives who refuse to support any plan hollowed out by GOP poison pills like means testing and work requirements.
But Manchin has picked a fight with one of the most popular elements of Biden’s American Rescue Plan. If Biden compromises now, he’ll be undercutting his single most significant domestic policy achievement, and possibly sink the whole deal. The public and the party are behind a robust child tax credit.
It’s time the White House learned that the better part of diplomacy is being able to reject a damaging, unserious offer. Manchin’s ego will recover. Struggling American families will not.