This week, millions of families across the United States are receiving their third monthly child allowance payment as implementation of the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year continues.
Meanwhile, as “Build Back Better” legislation continues to come together in Congress, with key House committees marking up their portions of the legislation this week, the future of America’s first guaranteed minimum income for families with children—a policy estimated to cut child poverty in half in the United States—is at the heart of the ongoing debate.
While not the permanent extension community advocates are calling for, the version of the bill currently moving through the House would extend the life of America’s first-ever child allowance by four years to give the expanded CTC time to take root—while making at least one key feature permanent: the credit’s so-called “full refundability” (read: full availability for the lowest-income families).
So, for this week’s Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with two dear friends and colleagues who have been leading the way on the fight to extend the child allowance beyond its first year—while also working to ensure the program’s full implementation: Indi Dutta Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, and Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project.
But first: Rebecca talks with Representative Rosa DeLauro—the Connecticut Congresswoman who’s spent the past nearly two decades in Congress leading the crusade for what she calls a “Social Security for children”—for a look at how we got here and why she set out to expand the CTC all the way back in 2003, long before the CTC became cool.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week, millions of families across the U.S. are receiving their third monthly child allowance payment as implementation of the expanded Child Tax Credit, authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year, continues.
Meanwhile, as “Build Back Better” legislation continues to come together in Congress, with key House committees marking up their portions of the legislation this week, the future of America’s first guaranteed minimum income for families with children—a policy estimated to cut child poverty in half in the U.S.—is at the heart of the ongoing debate in Washington.
While community advocates have been calling for the one-year Child Tax Credit expansion authorized earlier this year to be made permanent as part of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, the version of the bill currently moving through the House would extend the life of America’s first-ever child allowance by four years to give the policy time to take root. It would also make at least one key feature permanent, and that’s the credit’s so-called full refundability, also known as full availability, for the lowest-income families with kids.
With the Child Tax Credit back in the spotlight, for this week’s Off-Kilter, I sat down with two dear friends who’ve been leading the way on the fight to extend the child allowance beyond its first year, while also working to ensure the program’s full and robust implementation. Indi Dutta Gupta is co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. And Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project.
But first, I sat down with Representative Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut congresswoman who spent the past nearly two decades in Congress leading the crusade for what she calls “a Social Security for children.” We talk about how we got here and why she set out to expand the Child Tax Credit all the way back in 2003, long before the CTC was cool. Let’s take a listen.
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VALLAS: Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, thank you so much for making the time to come back on the show. And I have to say, it is always an honor to get to speak with you, and especially when it comes to the Child Tax Credit.
REP ROSA DELAURO: Aw, thank you so much, Rebecca. And I’m so delighted to have the opportunity to be in touch with you. We’ve spent a lot of time together when, you know, in another iteration with CAP. And I thank you for the great work that you do, and looking forward to our continued work as we move toward the Child Tax Credit and trying to make it permanent.
VALLAS: Well, and there’s nobody I would rather be speaking with in this moment about the Child Tax Credit, particularly in such a big week for this historic policy as the third round of monthly expanded Child Tax Credit checks are going out to families across the country. And before we even get into where things stand with the push to make sure that that expanded Child Tax Credit is extended well beyond one year, I would love to kick this conversation off with a look at how we got here to where the U.S., finally for the next year at least, and hopefully much longer, has in place what is functionally a guaranteed minimum income for families with children.
And you, Congresswoman, are a huge and central part of that story because you’re the member of Congress who saw fit to introduce legislation along these lines in every Congress starting all the way back in 2003. Talk a little bit about the road that got us here. What made you pick expanding the Child Tax Credit early on as something of a windmill to tilt at?
DELAURO: Well, there’s both personal and professional experiences that, as you know, legislation just doesn’t come out of whole cloth. It comes out of personal experience. It comes out of professional experience. It comes from listening to members of your community. You just don’t manufacture something, but there’s a need. There is the need. And for me on a personal level, I was raised in a very blue-collar family that financially struggled all of the time. I can recall the times that my folks, you know, we went home on a Friday night, and all of our furniture was on the street because we’d been evicted. And not that my folks were not working as hard as they could. They were both working, but they just fell on difficult times. And we had to live with my grandmother for a while until we got ourselves back on our feet. And when you think about that kind of a situation and imagine what it would be if a family had a child allowance at that point in order to be able to help them along financially.
Then I fast forward to the times that I had the great pleasure and opportunity of working with Senator Dodd, you know, Chris Dodd, who started the children’s caucus in the House where it was focused on childcare and the emphasis on what was gonna help to make a difference for families as they were trying to cope with the work/life balance. And almost as if, if you will, thinking about, though it wasn’t expressed this way, that what is the new social safety net for families today, in a different environment where everyone is in the workforce? You know, what do people need when the challenges are overwhelming in their lives? How do they be able to have an opportunity to get economic security? So, I worked very closely with him on issues that affected children. And so, those experiences.
But in 2003, I had the opportunity, and that I wanna credit Congressman John Spratt, who was chair of the Budget Committee, who, you know, I asked John if I could introduce an expanded Child Tax Credit to $1,000. And he said, go for it. Go do it. And I did. And we were in the minority at the time, so I lost on the party line vote. I knew that was going to happen. But that began the odyssey, if you will, for me legislatively. And I introduced the Child Tax Credit in every Congress, in the last 10 Congresses over and over and over again. You can’t get tired in this business, and you don’t, you can’t give up. That’s something my mother taught me: Don’t take no for an answer, and never give up.
So, and the turning point came. Look, I think the pandemic shone a light on what the, you know, the economic crisis that families are in today. And with the inception of the HEROES Act last December where we put it in—the Democrats put it in—of the candidate Biden had put it in his own tax plan. And we worked together to get them in. He put in the entire American Family Act the way it was written.
And I have to take a second. I wanna credit my colleague, Suzan DelBene from Washington State, and my Senate colleagues, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, and Michael Bennet, and also in the House, Richard Torres. We’re now known as The Connecticut Six. I mean, CT, not The Connecticut Six, the Child Tax Credit Six.
So, and but working closely, we were able to get it in the HEROES bill. We couldn’t have it happen because we were not in charge yet. There was still a Trump administration. So, as soon as the administration was putting together the American Rescue Plan, found out that weekend that it was not in there, so I just went into campaign mode, phone banked, talked to Ron Klain, Jared Bernstein, Susan Rice, Steve Ricchetti, the whole nine yards, Brian Deese, everyone. And I said, “I’ve been being told for years that what we need to get a Child Tax Credit is we need the House, we need the Senate, and we need the presidency. The moment is now; we have all three. It’s got to be in there.”
Well, I found a willing partner there and with the point that this is the opportunity for us to cut child poverty in half and provide a lifeline to middle-class families, working families, and the most vulnerable families. I met. A couple of days later, they called, and they said, “It’s in.” And now, as you point out and I point out, it can’t be for a year. We’ve got to move to extend it and to make it permanent.
VALLAS: And Congresswoman, I feel like I’ve got a mutual friend of yours and mine, her voice ringing in my head as you tell some of that story, Joanne Goldblum, who runs the National Diaper Bank Network and who I know is a dear friend of yours and who has been on this show.
DELAURO: Yes! Yes.
VALLAS: She often says, “Advocates are simply people who refuse to go away.”
DELAURO: That’s it.
VALLAS: And I feel like that just, it sums up the story so well, right? You said, “I don’t care how long this takes, we’re gonna do it.”
We’re going to get into this in greater detail with our panel later on in the episode. But one of the key elements of the expanded Child Tax Credit that you have been championing for years and years in those bills that you introduced over and over is something that policy wonks call “full refundability.” In English, that’s making sure that the Child Tax Credit is fully available to the lowest-income families.
DELAURO: That’s right.
VALLAS: Talk a little bit about how this piece of the proposal emerged as such a priority for you and why the push to ensure that full refundability gets extended beyond that one year is so important right now as part of the Build Back Better debate.
DELAURO: Well, fine. I’m gonna make one more point, because you talked about Joanne Goldblum. When I’m talking to people and their use of the Child Tax Credit, we’re talking about diapers, we’re talking about healthcare, we’re talking about school supplies. All of those things, people are now using the tax credit. But there was a Child Tax Credit in place before we moved to improve and to expand it. But in fact, one third of the poorest kids were left out of the ability to gain access to the credit. And I say thank you to Speaker Pelosi, who we’ve been joined at the hip on this issue for years. But I can recall when the threshold was $11,000. You had to meet that in order to be eligible. And I worked with her, ‘cause she was in the negotiations, and said, “Can we lower it? Can we lower it?” And I will recall anecdotally that she came back from the meeting. She says, “I wasn’t able to get it down to $8,000.” And I was ready to get angry. She said, “We got it down to $3,000.” But the threshold was at $3,000. That meant that the poorest families were not getting access to it.
And what does full refundability mean in this case? It’s that children with parents whose income is so low that they do not need to file taxes, those who were previously excluded from the tax credit, can now have access to that Child Tax Credit. And what we were doing before was leaving the poorest behind, and now we are not. And what is so strong about the Child Tax Credit, Rebecca, is the universality of it. Is that it is middle-class families who continue to struggle. It’s working families. It’s the most vulnerable families. And that is why I believe it has received such high praise and acceptance, like Social Security for Kids, because everyone can share in it. It doesn’t pit one group against another.
And the poverty reduction we achieve is because of the refundability, the increased value. And that is, and you get that, and you understand that from your work. So, that is a critical piece of it. Again, I’m sure you have seen the census data is pointing to child poverty rate fell to 9.7 percent, nearly four percentage points. The Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey talked about the lowering of the hunger rate. Child Tax Credit payments reduce financial anxiety for 56 percent of families. So, it is working, and it is very, very much a New Deal program. It is what Franklin Roosevelt did with regard to Social Security and lifting seniors out of poverty.
VALLAS: And Congresswoman, in the last few minutes that I have with you—and I feel like that’s just such an excellent segue into this final point that I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it up with you—something that you often remind your colleagues of, and which is a recurring theme on this show, is that poverty is a political choice.
VALLAS: It’s not an inevitability. It’s a choice. And considering that a single policy program, in this case, an expanded and fully available child allowance, is estimated to cut child poverty in half just on its own, in many ways, it feels like the debate over whether to extend this policy and for how long couldn’t be more of an exhibit A of what that phrase, that poverty is a political choice, really means. So, with the child allowance and its extension or permanence really at the heart of the Build Back Better debate going on in Congress right now, what is your message to your colleagues in the House, and especially your colleagues in the Senate, when it comes to what’s at stake for children and families as they confront the choice before them?
DELAURO: Well, I view it this way, that this is a moment. And that if we miss this moment, it is not going to come back again, not for a very, very long time. So, we cannot miss the moment. But if we do not make the Child Tax Credit permanent, that what we will see, whenever it is, to whatever point it is extended, then, there will be a poverty cliff. And what we will do is that instead of over 50 percent of kids out of poverty, it goes down to about seven percent of lifting kids out of poverty. That is what an incredible reduction. That means we throw children and their families back into poverty. How can we explain to people that for one, two, three, four years, we are going to give you this opportunity for some financial security and economic security, then we’re going to pull the rug out from under you?
And it is about, it’s a political choice, but it is about the public policy choices that we make. And we have the power to make those public policy choices, Rebecca. And we are at a time where Democrats, when we have the president, and I credit. We would not be where we are without President Biden and Vice President Harris. And I know that, and I know where their heart is on this. But what we need to do is to not squander this moment, and make sure that on our watch that we fostered the public policy initiatives that have been transformational in lifting kids and their families out of poverty in the United States. What a legacy. What a…. It is breathtaking for me, breathtaking of what we can do, and it is being recognized all over this country and all over the world. And so, only after three months. Imagine. After three months.
VALLAS: Congresswoman, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for your incredible and truly tireless leadership over nearly two decades on this one single issue. We would not be having this conversation, and families would not be receiving their third checks right now, if not for your incredible persistence and determination over just so many Congresses, long, long, long before the Child Tax Credit was cool, which I think it’s fair to say it certainly is now. And it’s been an absolute joy and an honor to get to work with you along the way. And I look forward to having you back on the show when we’re celebrating that this important policy has not just been extended, but hopefully at some point made permanent. Given that we know, as you just said, that no one, I think, is looking to rip these incredibly important payments away from families now that they are finally going out. So, here’s hoping. Here’s hoping that you and I get to have that conversation on the air at some point fairly soon.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro represents the 3rd Congressional District of Connecticut and is one of my absolute favorite members of Congress, in particular, because, as you heard, she can nail those stats, she cares about the census poverty data, all of that. All of that makes you a really special member of Congress to many of us, Congresswoman DeLauro.
DELAURO: Thank you, Rebecca. And we are gonna celebrate.
VALLAS: We were certainly are. We certainly are. We just got to figure out when it’s gonna be, and hopefully it is soon. Be well and thank you again for making the time to come back on the show.
DELAURO: Okay. Take care. Bye-bye.
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VALLAS: Welcome back to Off-Kilter. I’m Rebecca Vallas. For part two of this week’s episode, I sat down with two dear friends and colleagues at the center of the fight to extend America’s new child allowance beyond its first year. Indi Dutta Gupta is the co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. And Dorian Warren is co-president of Community Change and one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project. Let’s take a listen.
Indi, Dorian, thank you so much to both of you for taking the time to come on the pod.
DORIAN WARREN: Thanks for having us, Rebecca, and I’m so thrilled to be here with Indi.
INDI DUTTA GUPTA: Absolutely, Rebecca. This is a great topic at the right moment, and I’m excited to join you and Dorian.
VALLAS: Well, it feels like we should kick off with the American Rescue Plan Act and what that historic legislation authorized earlier this year. It’s the bill that became the law that means that monthly payments are now going out to millions and millions of families with kids.
Indi, I’m gonna turn to you to start us off with something of a reminder of the basic elements of the historic expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which many are calling a child allowance, which President Biden signed into law in March that estimates are suggesting may cut child poverty in half.
GUPTA: Well, for starters, the Child Tax Credit, which has existed for many years, has historically not only excluded some children and families with the lowest incomes, but has actually sort of punished even those with somewhat higher but still low incomes because it had a couple features that the American Rescue Plan has, at least for this year, done away with. And hopefully those features will persist.
One is that the Child Tax Credit used to exclude and just ignore some of the first several thousands of dollars earned by families as it phased in. And that means that some families who may have had very low incomes in certain years, say they’re dealing with health challenges or just the incredibly difficult labor market, weren’t benefiting, and others were benefiting less than they would otherwise. And that’s because the credit phased in. So, you didn’t get the full credit for each child, even though each child has a cost, whatever your earnings are. And that cost is borne by caregivers, both in actual expenses that go out of the household, the money going out of the household to pay for needed expenses, and also through reduced work sometimes and just meeting caregiving responsibilities and needs.
So, there’s a lot more that happened, including changing the age of eligibility and certainly a monthly payment. But to me, the most critical elements are that we have finally said in the American Rescue Plan that Child Tax Credit really should be there for as many kids as possible, and we should give the full amount of the benefit to families without regard to their income.
VALLAS: And that’s definitely a key element of what we had been hearing about earlier in this episode from Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who has been fighting for the bulk of her career in Congress for that full availability of the Child Tax Credit.
Dorian, I’m gonna turn to you next, because as the third round of metaphorical checks go out—it’s sort of hard almost not to say reflexively “checks going out,” even though it’s not physical checks for most families—what do we know about who the families are, who the children are who are benefiting, and what this money is meaning to families? It would probably be good as well to kind of pick up where Indi left off and to put some numbers to what families are actually receiving. But I know that’s a lot of what both the Economic Security Project and Community Change, the two hats you wear in this debate, have really been out there in the community talking to folks about.
WARREN: Well, I can tell you what I know from reports and data, and Indi probably has even more knowledge on this, as well as the conversations we’ve been having, thousands of conversations around the country as we’ve been doing grassroots organizing around this for the last few months and learning a lot about how parents are using the Child Tax Credit for their kids, whether groceries or rent or, you know, it’s back to school time, school supplies, spending on local businesses. One report I saw says that Child Tax Credits saved three million children from poverty in just the first month of July, and if extended, it’d reduce poverty below 10 percent in most states. We also have some estimates from some unlikely suspects, might I add, about what this would mean for businesses. Yes, businesses in addition to children, Rebecca!
So, The Niskanen Center, which is not known for being an uber-lefty place, estimates in a recent report that the Child Tax Credit will generate something like $27.6 billion increase in consumer spending, which would create jobs, which would create revenue for state and local governments. So, we know already from just the storytelling from parents who have been receiving the Child Tax Credit already what a difference it is making, whether it’s rent, groceries, school supplies, etc.
Let me end by saying something about the children who this is not affecting, ‘cause I think it’s really important, Rebecca. While this has been an enormous step forward and leap forward, the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit, there were at least one million children of immigrant families that are excluded from the CTC. Why? Because Republicans and then-President Trump in 2017 excluded immigrant kids, particularly immigrant kids with what’s called an ITIN number, an Individual Tax Identification Number, excluded them from benefiting. They had been benefiting before 2017 in the tax cuts to the very wealthy, but they got kicked out in 2017.
So, I know we’re gonna talk about what’s ahead. One of the things that’s ahead for us is to make sure this is truly inclusive, to make sure that no kid falls behind. So, amazing effects that we’re hearing in terms of how this is affecting kids and families just in month three now.
VALLAS: And the point about immigrant families and immigrant children being excluded is absolutely something we’re gonna come back to, given that there is actually some cause for optimism in the bill as it’s coming together on the Hill right now.
But Dorian, I’m gonna stay with you for just a moment because you were sort of starting to get into, and I wanna pull a little more on this thread, the point that it’s yes, children who are being helped immensely, but that it’s actually not just kids. Here you are talking about broader economic effects, but it’s also whole families. And so, one striking statistic that came out several weeks ago from the Census Bureau in something called the Household Pulse Survey, which gives a sort of a snapshot at how families are doing, they were able to tell us using census data that in the month and a half after the U.S. started issuing these monthly payments of the expanded Child Tax Credit or the child allowance as some call it, the number of adults living with children in the U.S. who reported that their household didn’t have enough to eat fell by nearly one third, right?
VALLAS: Just huge, huge impacts here on top of the reduction in child poverty to the tune of one half that many estimates are suggesting we may see.
WARREN: Yes, and that’s astounding. And it also infuriates me, if I’m being really honest. Because here we are in the richest country in the history of the planet, and we have people that go hungry every night and do not have food to eat or cannot afford to put food on the table. And at the same time, at the same time, what is it? Something like the richest Americans got over a trillion dollars richer in just the last year of the pandemic. That is infuriating! And it makes no, it’s absurd that that is the state of affairs in this country.
And so, yes, we have the data. You mentioned the Household Pulse Survey that shows, in almost real time, the effects of either $250 or $300 a month per kid on families, as you said, Rebecca, not just the kid, but on families in terms of being able to survive and make ends meet. That’s a really leap forward, especially when you consider—I know this is on your mind, too—we just passed the 25th anniversary of welfare reform, so-called welfare reform, which was cruel, which was racist, which was sexist, which was anti-immigrant, which cut cash assistance dramatically in this country. We are far away from that, that really hard fight with actually, yes, a Democrat in the White House.
And so, we have kind of, this is the moment to turn the page [laughs] on this long decades fight to say every child in America should not have to grow up hungry or in poverty or doesn’t have clothes for school or school supplies. We can make the political and policy choice to do something different. And that’s what we’ve done thus far, and that’s what’s ahead of us with the Child Tax Credit.
VALLAS: That’s right. And I say most days that I’m awake and saying words that poverty is a political choice. Poverty is a policy choice.
I don’t wanna get too far into this conversation without just putting out some of the other kind of numbers here that folks should be aware of in terms of what we’re talking about with this expanded Child Tax Credit. You mentioned that Dorian, for families, it’s generally $250 or $300 a month per kid. But we’re talking annually about $3,000 or $3,600 per child for nearly all working families. And the differential is depending on whether the child is a very young child in kind of the early years of life, under age five, or a child who’s up to age 17. Those are kind of the general parameters with the rationale, of course, being that kids in the first few years of life are especially expensive in terms of cost to the family and are in a position where the effects of poverty are even more dramatic and long lasting. Which is actually kind of a perfect segue into where I wanna switch gears and head next.
So, looking backwards kind of to how we got here, which is a little bit of what I did earlier with Congresswoman DeLauro, it sometimes feels worth remembering, and actually just sort of saying explicitly, that the expanded Child Tax Credit that we now are seeing in this one-year experiment that we hope is extended, it didn’t fall out of the sky. The idea of converting the previously extremely limited and flawed Child Tax Credit, which Indi was describing some of its limitations before, into a fully available child allowance or child benefit, a policy that actually exists in many other nations such as Canada and the UK, this is an idea that many researchers, community advocates, anti-poverty groups have been advocating for and advancing for a long time here in the U.S.
And Indi, part of what’s actually really interesting about the history here, especially interesting to me as something of a policy nerd—I know you guys are, too—is the research community’s role in building the case for this policy over the years, in taking something wonky like a refundable tax credit that almost no one but Congresswoman DeLauro ever even wanted to talk about in Congress until fairly recently, and giving it national visibility as a platform for dramatically reducing child poverty. The research community has an incredibly interesting role to play in much of this history. And I’d love, Indi, if you would talk just a little bit about the path to the Child Tax Credit becoming cool in recent years. You’re one of the people who has played a real role in that. And it’s actually an issue that we’ve worked on together in different roles over the years.
GUPTA: Yeah, thanks, Rebecca, for acknowledging the role of such an extensive group of people, citizens of our country, or residents of our country, from organizers to advocates to policy makers to researchers. There’s a number of ways that I think we got to this point. And even then, it was far from a foregone conclusion, frankly, right up until it happened. One is the ‘96 welfare law Dorian mentioned that I would argue gutted our cash assistance system and led to a quarter century or so of incredible hardship, especially among a lot of lone parents, typically mothers, and I think led to a lot of efforts that really reflected the loss of cash in households. And I’m thinking about efforts to stop taxing diapers, and in fact, we have a national diaper bank network and diaper bank; efforts to stop taxing menstrual products; even conversations about potentially expanding SNAP benefits to be used for more than the typical groceries that they’re available for. And I think a lot of this just reflects that people could not make ends meet.
But researchers also documented for really, for decades now—and you can actually go back to the Nixon years and even before in some instances—but they documented that in our society 50 years ago and even today, some basic level of cash is necessary to not just get by, but certainly to succeed in some meaningful way, really to have some sense of freedom, to raise children the way that virtually every parent wants to raise their kids. And they showed that cash would mitigate the immediate hardships, just as you and Dorian discussed, the Census Household Pulse Survey showing now in consecutive months here, this year in 2021. But they also show that in the long term, there was some real payoff, especially for those households with the very lowest incomes.
And researchers have made proposal after proposal to expand the Child Tax Credit, which was not really established necessarily with the same motivation. I think it was probably established in part to make some otherwise quite regressive and terrible tax cuts during the George W. Bush years look less terrible. But nevertheless, researchers saw it as an opening to try to in a, frankly, politically acceptable way get money into the households who would most benefit from it.
And I just wanna emphasize that we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that it lives up to its expectation. Not only does the expanded Child Tax Credit, I would argue, need some improvements on the policy side, though, it’s absolutely a watershed moment in the history of social policy in the U.S. But Dorian and others are leading some essential efforts to make sure that a huge share of folks who are not typically filing for taxes actually benefit from the program by signing up.
And here again, research is being quite helpful in saying, “Look. We’ve got to work through the other programs. We reach almost everyone one way or another.” I’ll tell you what. If nothing else, our law enforcement and criminal legal system knows how to reach everyone. But we have other programs: food assistance, healthcare, housing, and other programs that help us reach everyone and I hope will continue to be guided by the reality of folks on the ground who are saying, “We can’t get by. Jobs in this country pay far too little. They’re far too unpredictable, too intermittent. We need some basic system of income support for everyone.” And we combine that with everything we’ve learned from research to have a robust policy that moves not only our country forward, but essentially, I hope, sets the floor for guaranteeing income more broadly. You cannot make substantial reductions in child poverty or poverty without policies like these. And I think researchers across the ideological spectrum have shown that in report after report for decades now.
VALLAS: And that’s a great place to bring Dorian back in because this is obviously not just a national conversation about a child allowance or the Child Tax Credit, right? This conversation is coming against a national conversation backdrop about guaranteed income, which has been growing steadily in volume in recent years. Experiments like the Stockton Universal Basic Income, or UBI, Pilot; the Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Jackson, Mississippi, which is run by a mutual friend of all of ours, Aisha Nyandoro, an incredible, incredible thought leader in the guaranteed income space. These types of experiments have been gaining national attention and really helping to build what is an ever-growing case for guaranteed minimum income, as you said, Indi, as a leading strategy for addressing a poverty and inequality crisis that long predates the COVID pandemic, a point that I feel never quite gets repeated enough. And Dorian, the Economic Security Project, which I mentioned you’re one of the co-chairs of, that’s one of the hats you wear in this work, has actually been very involved in supporting a lot of those pilots and building that case on the ground.
WARREN: Absolutely. And, you know, [chuckles] five years ago, if you had told me, in five years, first of all, we’d be still living through a global pandemic that has cost millions of lives and jobs and just destitution, and second, one of our responses to that global pandemic was the infusion of direct cash assistance, I would’ve thought you were just like on a different planet.
So, American politics has moved very fast in the last five years around this question of guaranteed income, especially when you consider where we started the conversation, the 25th anniversary of so-called welfare reform. We made the mean and cruel policy choice to demonize immigrants and demonize Black women and say, “Nope! You don’t need cash. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We are as far away from that moment 25 years ago, and especially five years ago, where at the Economic Security Project, we decided to start a conversation around guaranteed income, to restart the conversation. It’s been a long conversation in this country, by the way, and especially, and I have to really say this, it has been a conversation led by poor Black women. I think of the National Welfare Rights Organization. This was part of the plank of the Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program. Dr. King talked about it. So, this is actually not a new idea. It’s certainly not a Silicon Valley or tech idea. Let me be very clear about that.
So, here we are. We tried a couple of experiments: the Stockton Pilot, as you mentioned, Aisha’s work in Jackson, Mississippi. And what was important about these experiments, Rebecca, was something that Indi’s already said earlier, collecting the data and doing the research on the effects and impact, as well as during the storytelling. Because we know that one of the longstanding tropes about giving people money from the right wing is that, “Oh, yeah, they’re just gonna spend it on alcohol or cigarettes or all these bad things.” Well, you know what? There’s two responses to that.
One, if people spend it that way, so what? That’s called freedom. People should have freedom to spend their money however they choose. But more importantly and second, the research and storytelling tells us the vast majority of folks who either got the $500 a month in Stockton or $1,000 a month in Jackson, Mississippi, or in the case of the Child Tax Credit, what do people spend cash on? The things they need to survive, much less thrive food: groceries, gas, debt. All the things that ordinary people need, that we all need, that’s how this money gets spent. And now we’re collecting the data on the broader macroeconomic effects of that spending, right? So, we know that it benefits local economies, that it’s actually much, much better. And let me end by saying this: It’s much, much better than tax cuts for rich people. Let’s be really clear. There’s, rich people get cash, too, from the government. It’s called a capital gains tax break, or it’s called the mortgage interest deduction. They get cash in the thousands of dollars a month equivalent. The Child Tax Credit? $250 a month per kid or some of these pilots around guaranteed income, $500? That is nothing compared to what rich people in the one percent in this country get from the government.
So, I think between the research and data and the storytelling from these, both pilots around guaranteed income, but more importantly or just as importantly, the social policy experiment that we’re in the midst of in terms of the Child Tax Credit, the evidence is overwhelming. It’s overwhelming on why this is not only good for families and children, why it’s a public good for the country.
VALLAS: And that really just underscores the value of the investment here.
Back to present day. I mentioned up top that this week as the third Child Tax Credit expansion checks, child allowance checks, go out to families across the U.S., the rubber is really meeting the road right now on a so-called Build Back Better legislation that Democrats are moving through a process called budget reconciliation. And the urgent need to at least extend, if not make permanent, the expanded Child Tax Credit that was authorized early this year for one year is really in many ways at the heart of that conversation.
So, pulling back the curtain just a little bit on what’s going on in Washington. This week, the House of Representatives is doing something called marking up its version of the reconciliation bill. That means key committees are kind of doing the stuff they need to do, taking the steps they need to take to ultimately get the bill ready to be voted on, on the House floor. And that bill, that House bill for Build Back Better legislation, as it is currently written, as it’s getting marked up, does include a multi-year extension of the one-year Child Tax Credit expansion that was authorized earlier this year.
Indi, I’m gonna turn to you next to walk us through what’s in the House bill right now that’s being marked up when it comes to the Child Tax Credit. It’s not permanence across the board, make everything Biden already authorized permanent, or signed into law, I should say, permanent. But it is a significant extension with some really important components, some of which we’ve already actually mentioned, including important protections for immigrant families.
GUPTA: That’s right, Rebecca. The House Democrats, the Ways and Means Committee have proposed to continue the monthly $250 or $300 checks, the $300 being for those kids under the age of six and $250 for older kids, older children. And they’ve proposed to continue that, not permanently, again, just through 2025. But they are proposing to make permanent that the checks are fully refundable, that they don’t phase in, that they are paid without regard to federal income tax liability. While some of these tax credits may have had some clear connection with federal income tax liability, I think it’s important to know that everyone in this country is paying some taxes, whether it’s local, state, federal, or some combination thereof, whether it’s sales, property, payroll, or income taxes. And the federal tax code, especially now through this Child Tax Credit extension, is one of the few ways we push back against what’s actually a fairly regressive system, often at the local and state level.
So, they’re proposing at the Ways and Means Committee to essentially keep the expanded Child Tax Credit, including for age, by age. They’re proposing to allow the use of an Individual Tax Identification Number for children without a Social Security number. And this is a big deal and a big win. Dorian talked about the fact that it was as recent 2017, the Trump tax law that eliminated access for many children in this country who are undocumented. But the truth is, a lot of Democrats have supported or at least acquiesced to these sorts of provisions in the past. And there is, I think, some evidence from even the last round of, few rounds of stimulus checks that there is some understanding that these are kids who are growing up in this country. They’re living in this country. We should, by all accounts, consider them American. And we are just harming ourselves if we keep excluding, say, the about one million or so folks that Dorian mentioned earlier. So, that, I think, is quite exciting as well.
I do just wanna mention that we really, really need to administer this program well. And I was excited that the Ways and Means Committee’s proposal in the House had several billion dollars to implement this program well, to administer this program well for outreach or education. And that’s a big deal. A lot of the poverty reduction from this program comes from reaching people who do not have their information already with the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS and Treasury, because they’re not already filing taxes. So, there’s a lot more to say, and there’s a lot of details, including around various sort of family arrangements. But overall, I think there’s a lot for advocates—researchers: we saw 400 economists today put out a letter calling for making permanent this Child Tax Credit expansion—and really, all Americans to be proud of and excited about sort of the actual permanence that is not there in the Ways and Means Committee bill. And I think people should continue to advance, nevertheless.
WARREN: Rebecca, can I jump in on this implementation point Indi just made? ‘Cause it’s so important.
VALLAS: I was gonna ask you to if you weren’t already going, Dorian.
VALLAS: So, go ahead.
WARREN: So, us policy nerds and researchers, and when I used to be a praxic political scientist, we would talk a lot and write about policies in terms of what should be in a policy. And then policy wins from an organizing perspective, like, yeah, it’s great when we win a policy. And we often leave off the implementation part because it ain’t sexy. No one wants to talk about implementation. And frankly, the expansion, the temporary expansion, of the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan, while great, the one disappointment I have is there was no thought about implementation and the resources it would take, as Indi has pointed out to say, have local navigators and local communities talking to parents to sign them up for the Child Tax Credit if they hadn’t filed taxes already.
And so, a whole bunch of us—so, I’m putting back on my Community Change hat for a minute—we’ve been doing, since before July 15th and the first payment, we’ve been doing grassroots outreach, both digital and, yes, when it’s safe and possible, in-person door-to-door outreach to talk to people who would directly benefit, to talk to parents and caregivers. And we learned a really important lesson this summer, and that is this concept of tax hesitancy. So, if you think of vaccine hesitancy and that conversation, very similar concept, and it’s defined by two things. One is fear of the IRS, fear of penalties maybe for not filing the last couple years, or especially if you’re a low-income person, fear that if you file your taxes and qualify for the CTC, you might be ineligible for other benefits like housing support, for instance, or childcare subsidies or food stamps.
The second element was shame contributing to tax hesitancy. Just, you know, people feel a certain kind of way. Like, I don’t wanna, if I haven’t paid my taxes, I don’t wanna admit that to a stranger or even to a friend or family member. And so, we’ve been innovating ways to have conversations with thousands and hopefully millions particularly of non-filers around why this is so important to cut through the fear and the shame that defines tax hesitancy and to help actually make sure this benefit reaches the people who need it the most.
And as Indi said then, therefore, what’s exciting about the proposed legislation, the reconciliation bill, is the resources for implementation so that we could, you know, the people that we work with are all volunteers who have agreed to talk to family members and friends about why they should sign up for the CTC if they’re not receiving it. Having money to hire community navigators, not only is that a great source of implementation and the resources needed for implementation, it’s also a very good jobs program, by the way, for people to actually help their fellow community member to receive those benefits. So, I just had to jump in here on the implementation question ‘cause it’s super important.
VALLAS: It’s such an important point. And putting on my former public benefits lawyer hat, right, I got a front row education when it came to eligibility not being the same as access back when I was helping folks apply for and often had to appeal to be able to receive benefits that they were either being wrongfully denied, or they were jumping through hoops trying to access. It’s such an important point. And it is one of those elements of the House Build Back Better bill that’s being marked up this week that certainly isn’t gonna get the level of attention that the rest of the Child Tax Credit provisions will. But as Indi pointed out, significant resources there that should be, according to my read and I think a lot of others’ reads of the text, the kind of money that can be spent on exactly what you’re describing, Dorian: that kind of navigator assistance that we know will be the difference between actually reaching that child poverty cut in half promise and falling somewhat short because we know we left some folks behind.
Dorian, I’m gonna stay with you for just a moment because you mentioned before the 25th anniversary of the 1996 welfare law, the law that is sometimes referred to as having ended welfare as we knew it, and which created a program called TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is a deeply inadequate and flat-funded block grant program that helps very, very few children today, poor children and families in the U.S. So, here we are marking that 25th anniversary at the same time that we’re talking about the third month now of nationwide distribution of the U.S.’s first fully available child allowance. Just really kind of incredible to see those moments coincide.
You and I were actually talking just a few months ago on Off-Kilter with our colleague and friend, whom I mentioned before, Aisha Nyandoro, about the very question you posed before: Is this finally the moment when we can turn the page on the 1990s-era so-called work requirements debate that we know is underpinned by racist, sexist tropes that are leftovers and vestiges of the Reagan era and much that came before? I apologize in advance for having to put this question to you, but it feels like we would be remiss if we didn’t in this moment because of when we’re having this conversation.
VALLAS: A particular senator from West Virginia in recent days appears to be forcing us to ask that very question by himself suggesting that work requirements be added to the Child Tax Credit as part of its extension. How do you respond to that kind of a proposal in this moment? And how do you believe we should be approaching that kind of a decision, and that policymakers should be approaching that type of decision, as we mark 25 years since the signing of the ‘96 welfare law with the child allowance as this new direction that we’re trying so hard to head?
WARREN: Wow. Well, that’s the, [laughs] that is the question, Rebecca. And just to add two quick things. One is, let’s remember, we fought in 1996, ‘95 and ‘96, we were fighting against a Democratic president who had adopted the right-wing economic frame that, frankly, was exemplified by Ronald Reagan 40 years ago this year, 1981, right, when he said, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem,” when he told stories about Black mothers and welfare queens. This is, we’ve been living through this in 40 years. And it’s in a moment where we talk a lot about intersectionality. Let’s also remember conservatives on the right are also intersectional. They’re very clear on who they target and demonize. And so, to bring it to 1996 from Reagan in ‘81, the attacks on both, frankly, poor Black women and women of color and immigrants together was cruel. It was racist. It was sexist. It was neo-liberal. I have a lot of terms that define it. And we lost the fight, and it’s been 25 years of organizing.
So, here’s my second point, since you mentioned Senator Manchin. The only way we are going to push back against these frameworks that are so harmful and cruel, whether it’s work requirements or eligibility, is organizing. Is organizing and storytelling and putting pressure on politicians.
So, here’s my story. We have a great grassroots volunteer in West Virginia, Takea Smith, who just last week got a meeting with some of her colleagues with Senator Manchin and frankly, felt she hadn’t been heard enough, that he was dismissive, that he was patronizing. So, they end the meeting. She calls up some more of her friends. They wait for him in the parking lot. And he came out, and she told him and confronted him and said, “You need to listen to the voices, particularly of Black women in West Virginia, about what this means for our and their daily lives.” She had a long conversation with the senator. By the time they were over, she took a little selfie with him. But that’s just an example of putting the voices, like we need all the kinds of expertise. We need the expertise of people directly affected, of mothers and parents and caregivers directly affected telling their stories of what this means for them. We also need the expertise of folks like Indi to do the research and crunch the numbers and think about the policy design and the policy implementation.
So, this is, I think, the strategy, Rebecca. It’s both organizing and shifting [laughs] the political will of the deciders, of the decision makers like Senator Manchin, and really keeping the pressure on him. But we need to marshal all the data and evidence we can to tell that story, too, of what this means and the effects of something like the Child Tax Credit on ordinary Americans and frankly, how we all benefit.
VALLAS: And we’re running out of time, which breaks my heart because I’d love to spend a lot more time getting into all of this with you, and there’s a lot more that we could cover. But in our last few minutes together, Indi, I’m gonna go to you next to help us understand what is the road ahead, and what should folks be watching? The House is taking really important steps this week and next week and moving towards a September 27th deadline that’s being widely reported in the media around the reconciliation process. But then it’s, presumably, after the House passes the bill, it’s over to the Senate. Talk a little bit about the road ahead and the prospects for this larger reconciliation bill with this very important child allowance extension as part of it and what folks should be watching/how they can get involved in this next and really critical phase of this push.
GUPTA: Well, thanks for asking that, Rebecca. I think that there’s really no crystal ball here. But some people say some things maybe that are more performative out in public, and they feel like they have to say what they have to say. And a lot of conversations will happen also behind the scenes. But I just want to remind people that whatever any particular senator, especially in the general kind of caucus says, in some ways, people can make them feel the gravity of the situation and the opportunity. We entered the pandemic with one of the weakest economic security systems among rich countries. We produced an emergency response that was extraordinary, despite all of its flaws, and I think, unmatched across the world, possibly throughout the history of the world. And we need to learn and help our elected officials and policymakers learn the right lessons from that. So, it’s hard to really wrap our heads around just how historic and unusual, not just once in a generation, but maybe once in a century or twice in a century at most sort of opportunity there is before policymakers who are interested in advancing this reconciliation bill.
And rather than come up with some sort of artificial price tag, which I know they have already done, if you look around the country and ask yourself what are our needs, and do we have the resources to pay for them? And remind you that in some cases, taxing especially high earners and highly paid individuals and highly profitable corporations can be good in and of itself. It can create incentives for good things to happen and produce good outcomes. So, keep that in mind. We have a lot of potential for raising revenues to pay for these other investments that I think research is making very clear we are incredibly unwise not to make.
If you were a private investor and could get the sort of returns on investment that the government could get by reducing mass incarceration and criminalization, instead spending money on housing, a child allowance, on a robust Earned Income Tax Credit, including for workers not raising children, more robust unemployment assistance system, caregiving needs being met for all families who need it, and I mean at all parts of the life cycle, you would be incredibly foolish not to make these investments. But we have to remind people of that. And to be clear, these are just humane, moral, just, sound policies. But inequality has become so extreme in the United States of America that almost anything you do to limit some of the extraordinary wealth that people are taking away at the top and instead, spend it wisely as we are here on families and families with children and those with low incomes, will have substantial returns and benefits for every one of us.
VALLAS: Dorian, you’re gonna get the final 30 seconds to help families who might be listening right now know what they need to know about where they can get help accessing the Child Tax Credit. That’s a lot, as you’ve mentioned, about what both the Economic Security Project and Community Change have been focused on getting out the word. Where can folks go to learn more? And we’ll also make sure that that information is in show notes.
WARREN: The organizations’ websites, Community Change or Economic Security Project. Find us on all your social media. Find us. There are ways to plug in to learn more. There’s a lot of resources out there. I think the punchline here is I’m thinking a lot, Rebecca, of our dear friend Heather McGhee’s most recent book. And it’s the question, why can’t we all have nice things? We all deserve nice things. And this is a public good for all of us by investing in our kids and investing in just the dignity of what it means to be a human being in this country.
VALLAS: Dorian Warren is the co-president of Community Change. He’s also one of the co-chairs of the Economic Security Project. And we’ll have links to both of those organizations’ websites and resources in our show notes so folks can get connected, get involved, get more information about not just how to claim and receive the Child Tax Credit, but also how to get involved in this fight.
And Indi Dutta Gupta is co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. We’ll also have some of your great resources in our show notes as well, because the Georgetown Center has been doing amazing work on the Child Tax Credit for many years now.
Indi, Dorian, thank you to both of you for taking the time to come on the show and also just for your incredible work for many, many, many years, and especially in this moment, to hopefully get us to a point where the next time I’m talking with you guys on this show we’re celebrating a massive extension or permanence of this incredibly important policy and lots and lots of good implementation work. Thanks to both of you for taking the time.
WARREN: Thanks so much, Rebecca.
GUPTA: Thanks, Rebecca, and for your work on getting us to this day as well.
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