Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children

Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with GOP Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah (left) and Susan Collins of Maine in the Oval Office on February 1, 2021.Pool/Getty Images

  • There is strong support among some social conservatives for the child allowance Democrats passed as part of Biden's stimulus package.
  • Biden's poverty-fighting measure could also boost birth rates and empower stay-at-home parents - both conservative goals.
  • Democrats want to pass a longer-term or permanent child allowance, but experts say racism and partisanship could derail that effort.
In 2021, there is very little that Democrats and Republicans agree on.
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But progressives and some social conservatives have found common ground on a dramatic expansion of the social safety net.
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Earlier this month, Democrats passed a temporary child allowance - a more generous child tax credit - in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Beginning in July, almost all American families will receive monthly checks of up to $300 for kids under six and up to $250 for kids between six and 17.

While no Republicans voted for the American Rescue Plan, GOP Sen. Mitt Romney recently proposed a more generous child allowance that's been celebrated on the left and embraced by a segment of social conservatives.

Democrats and Republicans support child allowances for different reasons. While the left sees the cash transfer program as the fastest and most effective way to lift kids and families out of poverty, social conservatives believe the policy could help boost the declining birthrate, encourage full-time parenting, and reduce the number of abortions.
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The policy's strong popular appeal could help make it permanent, but the political debate is far from over.

Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, leaves a Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)Associated Press

Democrats reinvent social policy 25 years after welfare reform

Progressives are big fans of Biden's child allowance - although many would like to see a more generous version be enacted permanently. The policy marks a shift to the left for Democrats, including the president, who supported the 1990s welfare reforms that sharply limited aid to many of America's poorest under President Bill Clinton. Twenty-five years ago, centrist Democrats sided with Republican demands for strict work requirements and welcomed "the end of welfare as we know it." But progressives have been pushing for the policy for years. Rep. Rose DeLauro has introduced a child allowance policy in every Congress for the last 18 years. Proponents also point to similar policies in developed nations around the world, including Canada and much of Western Europe. Increasing discussion on the left of a universal basic income - Democrat Andrew Yang centered his campaign on the policy - and multiple rounds of pandemic stimulus checks have also helped pave the way for a child allowance.
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Experts say Biden's child allowance will dramatically improve conditions for lower- and middle-income families. The policy is expected to cut child poverty in half, disproportionately benefitting children of color. In the long-term, lifting kids out of poverty will improve their educational, health, and employment outcomes.

Jamila Michener, a government professor at Cornell University and co-director of its Center for Health Equity, said Biden's child allowance isn't particularly innovative, but marks a turning point for US social policy.

"If we think comparatively and internationally, a child allowance isn't crazy, and it isn't anything to write home about," Michener told Insider, "but in the context of the US, and especially the approach we've had to social policy and policies that help people living in poverty, it is a pretty significant step forward."
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An old idea with new support

In recent years, a segment of Republican lawmakers and conservative thinkers have warmed up to more liberal pro-family policies, including giving parents cash without strings attached.

Elisa Minoff, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for the Study of Social Policy, said a landmark 2019 National Academies of Sciences study on child poverty noticeably shifted the national debate. The 600-page report found that the work-based safety net policies of the 1990s - Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Earned Income Tax Credit - weren't particularly effective at reducing poverty. Policies that tie government aid to employment may actually increase poverty, it found.

The report concluded that a child allowance - very similar to Biden's - is the single most effective way to lift kids out of poverty. With that support, parents with jobs would only cut back their employment by, on average, an hour a week.
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"That report was really galvanizing to a lot of folks," Minoff said, adding that it undermined "a lot of the criticisms that we've seen of these income support programs."
Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children
From left, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., attend a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing in the Capitol Visitor Center titled "The Failure of Trickle Down Economics in the War on Poverty," April 14, 2016.Tom Williams/Getty Images

Many social conservatives have become concerned with the US's declining fertility rate and the rising rate of single parenthood, among other shifts in how Americans parent.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, the US birthrate has been on the decline. And experts predict that about 300,000 fewer babies will be born in the US in 2021, in large part a result of the pandemic and economic crisis. The birthrate is closely tied to economic factors, including employment and income.
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Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, supports a child allowance to help boost the birthrate, potentially reduce demand for abortions, and support stay-at-home parents.

"If you give people money to have babies, they'll have more of them," he told Insider. Stone supports Romney's Family Security Act and thinks Biden's child allowance policy is flawed, but "does valuable work increasing support for childbearing." While a large segment of Republicans still strongly support work requirements that disproportionately push single mothers into employment, a segment of social conservatives want to see more stay-at-home mothers. At the same time, the left is engaged in its own debate about whether making it easier for women to stay home should be a goal of social policy.
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There's a growing belief on both the left and the right that childrearing should be considered labor - and rewarded as such. Progressives and some social conservatives agree that kids are both a public good and responsibility. Stone argues that parents actually subsidize the retirements of childless Americans, given that their kids' future labor will fund Social Security benefits for the expanding retired population.

The conservative shift on child allowances is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Romney's Family Security Act, which proposes wholesale reform of the social safety net and a generous new cash benefit. A former outspoken opponent of giving "free stuff" to poor Americans, Romney is now proposing a more generous cash transfer program than that devised by Democrats. The Utah Republican's plan would eliminate a few other tax credits and federal funding for TANF to pay for the new cash benefit. It aims to cut child poverty, promote marriage, boost the birthrate, and reduce the number of abortions by sending out checks to expectant parents.

Biden's program is designed to reduce poverty and will disproportionately help communities of color, but the vast majority of American families will directly benefit from it. More than 90% of kids qualify for some assistance under the new program. The universal nature of the proposed child allowances has likely helped boost its appeal across the political spectrum.
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Recent polling has found that a large majority of Americans - including 60% of Republican voters -- support Biden's child allowance.

Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children
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A child allowance divides conservatives

Still, most Republican lawmakers oppose any kind of child allowance, arguing it would discourage work and marriage and be too expensive.

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who've previously championed child tax credit expansions for employed parents, notably criticized Romney's plan as "welfare assistance." Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute argues a child allowance would subsidize single parenthood and "worsen entrenched poverty" in the long-term. Oren Cass, executive director of the center-right think tank American Compass, has proposed a child allowance that only goes to working parents.
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There are clear racial undertones to the political debate over poverty-reduction measures. Minoff argues that some of the support for work requirements is steeped in racist myths and stereotypes about Black families and mothers that helped motivate the welfare reform of the 1990s.

"It's almost always been that the conversation's really focused on Black families and a concern that Black parents or Black women don't want to work when, of course, Black women have among the highest labor-force participation rates of anyone in the United States," Minoff said.

The issue has pitted old-school fiscal conservatives who've long condemned "welfare" for the poorest Americans against a younger generation who want the GOP to lean into economic populism.
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Conservative commentator Charles Buskirk recently argued that there's a generational divide on the right when it comes to the child allowance. He observed that conservatives under 50 are more likely to support pro-family policies and less rigid work requirements, which he called a "fetish."

"Elected Republicans who reflexively oppose a child allowance may need to catch up with their voters - and with economic reality - on this," Buskirk wrote, adding, "Conservatives should believe in parents raising their own children rather than outsourcing it." Right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt has pledged to help make the child allowance permanent and urged parents to use the money to send their kids to religious and private schools - a priority for many conservatives.
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Stone, who supports Romney's Family Security Act, believes conservative opposition to a child allowance comes from a "philosophical opposition to giving money to low-income people."

Social conservatives are endorsing Democrats' dramatic expansion of the social safety net through monthly allowance checks for children
President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 relief package in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, March 15, 2021, in WashingtonPatrick Semansky/AP

A permanent child allowance?

Biden and top Democrats are already pushing to make the child allowance permanent. White House officials are reportedly drawing up plans to extend the benefit through 2025 as part of Biden's forthcoming "Build Back Better" legislation.

It's possible the temporary policy's popularity will make it more politically feasible to pass a permanent or longer-term version.
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"The policy that was passed in the stimulus is going to feed into our political system by structuring the expectations and the demands and the political action that people who receive these benefits take and that can create a different political environment a year from now, two years from now," Michener said.

Democratic lawmakers have already begun arguing that Republicans would be foolish to support doubling child poverty by ending the child allowance. The GOP will likely face pressure to put forward alternative legislation to prevent families from plummeting off a financial cliff once the child allowance expires. Romney's plan could be a starting point.

But Michener warned that a longer-term child allowance might fail if the "policies start to get described or depicted in ways that make it seem like really this is just us giving Black and brown people who don't want to work money."
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