Months of negotiations over the Democrats’ agenda in Congress boil down to one thing: What will Joe Manchin agree to? Given that his vote is needed to pass the party’s Build Back Better package, which includes funding on climate change, health care, housing and care, the conservative West Virginia senator called for many shots.
Manchin strongly insisted that social programs separate the deserving from those who are not. The expanded child tax credit payments, which currently go to all low-income parents, whether or not they are employed, have been a particular target of his wrath. “Don’t you think that if we want to help children, people should make an effort? he argued recently. Apparently, raising children is not enough effort to merit financial support.
Manchin also wanted higher hurdles for families trying to get childcare subsidies and forcing people to prove their previous income before they could take paid leave.
His campaign appeared to have partially succeeded when President Joe Biden scaled back his once-ambitious plan in October. Suddenly, if parents want to receive childcare subsidies, they have to prove that they are working, looking for a job, taking training, enrolling in school, or being in school. ‘they are undergoing health treatment or are on leave.
There’s also a work requirement in the House Democrats’ latest paid family leave proposal. While governments typically require proof of employment to take paid time off, this one go further, requiring people to file periodic reports telling the government how many hours each week they devote to caregiving.
The problem with these provisions is not that people are not doing what the government thinks they should. Most parents who need child care are probably working, studying, or trying to find a job. People on leave are looking after someone, either themselves or their loved ones. The problem is to force them to demonstrate it, potentially over and over again. It’s the red tape and bureaucracy, breaking the rules, that keeps people from getting the programs they need to survive.
This is the lesson we have learned from the country’s greatest experience with the demands of work, the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families. President Bill Clinton imposed such a rule on cash welfare recipients with the support of many in his party, including then Senator Biden.
But TANF has proven that forcing these rules on aid programs does not force the poor to work; it just keeps them poor. In some of the early TANF programs, work demands slightly increased the work of beneficiaries, but they mostly held unstable jobs. Five years later, those employment gains had disappeared and the beneficiaries who were subject to an obligation to work were in fact working less. Few have been lifted out of poverty, and some have even fallen deeper into destitution.
The work demands have been equally dire elsewhere. They cut food stamp registrations without helping people find more work. After the Trump administration allowed states to impose work requirements on Medicaid, more than 18,000 people in Arkansas lost their benefits, with no increase in the workforce.
Despite this evidence, Democrats still insisted until very recently that the poor prove they deserve benefits. And yet, that instinct seemed to fade with the onset of the pandemic. Democrats voted three rounds of stimulus checks for nearly all Americans. Then they extended the existing child tax credit to more than 90 percent of families, even those with little or no income from work.
Payments didn’t start coming in until July, but they’ve already had a huge impact. Hardship and hunger among parents decreased by the time the checks reached their bank accounts, while deprivation actually increased for households without children. Three million fewer children lived in poverty in July. Payments do not reach all eligible families; if they were, child poverty would have fallen from 15.8 percent to single digits. Yet they offer a glimpse into the power of simply giving people resources.
It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to backtrack on this progress and revert to hard rules. As a senator, Biden once wrote that the poor must be brought “out of poverty.” It is time to prove that he and his party have abandoned this approach in the past.