A poverty policy expert explains how Biden's Child Tax Credit could change America's broken relationship with welfare

A poverty policy expert explains how Biden's Child Tax Credit could change America's broken relationship with welfare
The current welfare system in the US can be both confusing and threatening for applicants in need. Maskot/Getty Images
  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • Recently, they spoke with poverty policy expert and law professor Wendy Bach about Biden's Child Tax Credit.
  • Bach says the credit's success at removing barriers to access welfare could change future benefits programs.

"The United States is unique in that it really has three benefit systems that break down almost precisely by income level," Professor Wendy Bach explained in the latest episode of "Pitchfork Economics."

"We have what I like to call welfare for the wealthy at the top, delivered mostly through tax expenditures and through the tax code," Bach said. In the middle-income brackets "we have benefits across the board just for the elderly, Social Security and Medicare. And then we have benefits at the bottom that are means-tested."

Bach, who teaches law at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is an expert in poverty policy and the criminalization of poverty. The means-testing she's referring to are outrageous barriers such as drug testing and elaborate filing requirements that have been placed in front of every form of government support for impoverished Americans, from rent assistance to SNAP payments to health insurance, which serve as a means of discouraging, and even punishing, participation.

The nation's history with welfare

When President Bill Clinton famously brought about the "end of welfare as we know it" in the 1990s by slashing government benefits under the guise of "welfare reform," assistance programs became a source of shame and ridicule. Democrats and Republicans alike across the country worked to make it harder for Americans in poverty to access benefits, and they made those benefits increasingly more meager over the years.

The resulting service system is simultaneously confusing and threatening for applicants.


"When you apply for something like Section 8, or public housing," Bach explained, "you're going to have an in-person interview, you're going to have work or volunteer requirements, you might be drug tested, you're going to sign a consent form allowing them to see all kinds of records about you and your family."

And then supposing you jump through all the time-consuming hoops correctly, "you could lose that housing for failing to comply with a vast number of both behavioral requirements and documentation requirements," Bach said. "You're constantly being asked to recertify, to reproduce paperwork," and you have to deal with the "presence of government officials in your home through home inspections," which are incredibly stressful.

If the inspectors see "no food in your refrigerator," for example, "because you don't have enough money so you're applying for assistance to get food," Bach said, "you're going to end up with a child welfare referral," which means your child could be removed from your home and placed in state custody.

Sometimes, the over-policing of recipients is even more literal: In 2015, the Justice Department accused Los Angeles County of enlisting the sheriff's department to push Black families using Section 8 benefits out of largely white neighborhoods. (LA County quickly paid $2 million to settle the case and agreed to stop the practice.)

Guilty until proven innocent

In the social safety net, recipients are often considered guilty until proven innocent. But now Bach believes that the tide may finally be turning. "I do think pandemic-related benefits have changed the conversation," she said.


Bach cites one policy in particular for this change. "I would call the expanded Child Tax Credit really revolutionary in American social welfare policy," she said, "and the reason, simply, is universality."

Starting last month, the Biden Administration began sending monthly cash payments of $250 or $300 per child to nearly every family in the United States. These checks were sent "along nearly the entire US income spectrum, from families with no income at all to married couples earning over $150,000," Bach said. "Although policies like this are quite, quite common in other Western democracies, the US has very few universal benefits."

Polling indicates that families are immediately spending the monthly checks as they come in, which is exactly how they're supposed to work. That consumer spending - on everyday necessities like food, housing, transportation, and other expenses - supports local businesses, which will have to hire more workers to keep up with increased demand.

The program is overwhelmingly popular with recipients, including an astonishing 73% of Trump voters who received Child Tax Credit payments. And pulse surveys showed that hunger and other forms of economic hardship immediately declined when Child Tax Credit checks started arriving, which means the program is working exactly as predicted.

Making welfare easier to access

If our leaders can successfully communicate the benefits of this program to American voters, the success of Child Tax Credits could transform our understanding of government assistance for the 21st century. Benefits might no longer be stratified by economic class, and they could be delivered automatically - without the ridiculous punitive hurdles that many programs put in front of the poorest Americans.


Bach hopes that the automatic nature of the Child Tax Credit will inspire reformers to make welfare easier to access, "in a way that's autonomy-enhancing, that's respectful, that's easy, that promotes the ability of individuals to manage their own priorities and decide what they need to spend their money on."

For the first time in a while, Bach can see some hope in that direction. "I think we are making progress on this idea that base-level benefits can make a difference in people's lives," she concluded.