For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat down with Indi Dutta-Gupta, a dear friend and colleague who’s dedicated his career to ending poverty in America and building an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few. Today he serves as president and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), one of the nation’s leading organizations dedicated to advancing economic security and racial equity. They had a far-ranging conversation about the long road to the historic one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit authorized as part of COVID relief and the road ahead to making a guaranteed minimum income for families with children a permanent reality in the United States; what it looks like to set a north star and work backward to create a strategy to get there; the challenges of balancing family and work as a social justice leader; why he got married with his hand on A Theory of Justice; and lots more.
Links from this episode:
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week, as you know, I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance that we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
And this week I am so incredibly excited to sit back down with a really good friend of mine that I haven’t actually gotten to catch up with lately, so this episode is doing double duty for me personally. His name is Indi Dutta-Gupta. He’s a dear friend who has dedicated his entire career to ending poverty in America and building an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few. A personal note: I first got to meet Indi 12 years ago! I was counting when I was prepping for this episode. I was a legal aid lawyer. He was a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And today Indi serves as the executive director of CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, one of the nation’s leading organizations dedicated to economic justice for low-income families. Indi, welcome back to Off-Kilter. It’s the first time in a minute that we’ve had you on the show, and I’m so excited to get to catch up with you, friend!
INDI DUTTA-GUPTA: Rebecca, I am honored to be back. It has been a while. It’s my first time doing it on video with you too. And I love your opening! I love the focus on economic liberation. I am a big Marvel fan, and I love the idea of this as your trip to the Marvel Multiverse. And I don’t know obviously everyone you’ve had on your podcast, but I know a lot of them. And I really admire a lot of the folks that you interview and have these discussions with and learn from them. So, thank you, thank you, and I’m excited to chat.
VALLAS: Well, I’m so excited for this conversation on a bunch of levels, in part because you are one of those people who I view as a superhero in this work. You have been as long as I’ve known you. You certainly are today in the role that you’re in. But I’m also really excited to get to ask you some questions that I actually have I don’t think ever asked you. And so, I’m genuinely very, very curious to learn some things about you as we have this conversation as well. But before we get into talking about any policy or really even talking too much about what I’ve got on my list, I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself, really reintroduce yourself, but introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and to share how you come to economic justice work. What was your path to getting to CLASP?
DUTTA-GUPTA: So, I’m Indi Dutta-Gupta, as you mentioned. And I’m now the president and executive director at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, a 54-year-old organization focused on developing policies and ideas to address poverty with a particular focus on racial equity, but also attention into gender equity, disability, of course, immigrant status, and more. We know that poverty is deeply intertwined with various identities and the ways that systems and structures interplay with those. And I personally come to this work both accidentally and intentionally!
So, the accidental part is that I was really focused on economic, social, and cultural rights through a human rights framework, and I thought I’d end up working abroad one day. But partly for personal reasons, I tried to pursue a career in the United States. And in reality, it’s the same work in some ways, right? So, working on economic and social rights in particular is very similar to the work that we do to address poverty in the United States, sometimes with a different framework. And so, that was the accidental part. But the intentional part is my family did immigrate to the United States when I was three. And we had very, very limited resources. I remember an apartment we stayed in early on had no furniture. We used boxes. I remember eating pretty much the same meals meal after meal when I was very young. I remember my parents working and pursuing higher education at the same time, my father sometimes in two jobs at once. So, some of this is also quite personal.
VALLAS: I appreciate you bringing in the accidental, the intentional, the personal, the professional. I hope we have a chance to go to all of those places at some point during this conversation. But Indi, I wanna start with one of the issues that I know is very close to your heart. And then we’re gonna get more into a lot of your work and how you do the work, and we’re gonna go behind some of the work as well.
But I have to say, as I was thinking about what to talk with you about for this conversation, I was marveling, so to speak, at just the immense breadth of your work over the years when it comes to economic policy and economic justice and social policy. I mean, it is wild how many issues you have managed to work on and how many intersections you have found and really leaned into. But one issue that is incredibly close to your heart, it’s also very close to my heart, and that’s where I’d really like to start, is the Child Tax Credit, which folks are probably familiar with. It’s kind of a household name within policy, but it’s a pretty exciting topic to talk about in the context of recent economic and social policy. And it’s also a conversation we need to continue to have as we continue to dream about what could be, and I would argue, and probably you would argue as well, what should be when it comes to the economy that we’re all in the business of trying to build, if economic justice is what we’re here to try to do. So, before we get too deep into the policy weeds on the Child Tax Credit and some of the things that make that a sort of an exciting and timely conversation in the context of recent social and economic policy, I wanna give you the chance to set the table a little bit by asking what the broader picture is right now in the U.S. when it comes to child and family poverty today.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, the United States, first and foremost, from my perspective, has extraordinarily elevated child poverty and family poverty, in particular among families headed by a single parent, typically a single mother, and especially among communities of color. And these are not sort of accidental outcomes. They are almost entirely policy choices. Single mothers are just as or more prevalent in many other peer countries, and those countries have much lower poverty rates for single mothers. And some of this is about the public benefit system, but some of it’s also about things like the gender wage gap, which if we eliminated, we could dramatically reduce poverty among single-mother families.
I would also just note that the United States, briefly, because of the American Rescue Plan, had extremely low child poverty, towards the bottom of peer countries, for one year. One of the priorities of the Biden administration was to expand the Child Tax Credit, and it did so in many ways, for the first time, really aligning it with all this research that we have seen come out, showing that a very basic level of income, especially for some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged families with kids, has extraordinarily positive benefits. I imagine some viewers and listeners know this, but the Child Tax Credit was expanded both by increasing generosity, by making it available to older children who are often excluded, by enhancing it for the youngest children, by allowing payments to be made monthly for the first six months in which it was implemented. But most importantly, by saying we are no longer going to treat the poorest children in America worse than we treat middle-class and upper-middle-class children. The Child Tax Credit reaches something like 95 percent of kids when it was fully expanded under the American Rescue Plan. But actually, the big expansion that had predated it in 2017 was the Trump tax law expanding it up to higher-income families mostly.
So, this idea that we were going to give the full benefit of the Child Tax Credit to kids who have the lowest incomes is an idea that’s been around for some time, but we’ve never quite been able to accomplish it until we did for one year on a temporary basis. And it dramatically reduced poverty. It seems to have helped with lots of material hardships, including food insecurity or hunger. And there’s mountains of evidence showing that over the long term, the benefits are so great, if you only cared about the benefits to society overall and not to the specific people, the benefits dwarf the costs something like nine to one, according to our friends at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy because of the benefits to the individual, end up reducing things like interaction with the foster care child welfare system, Child Protective Services specifically. They increase—these benefits, the Child Tax Credit benefits—increase student achievement, improves health, long-term educational attainment, and as a result reduces, oh, sorry, increases income, but it also reduces interaction with the criminal legal system. So, if any time we, Rebecca, you or I would evaluate a policy, we’d say, well, what are the benefits? What are the costs? And is there anything that’s sort of deeply problematic about it in a sense of justice beyond the costs and benefits? And here you’ve got this almost ideal policy. The downsides were almost trivial, and the upsides were enormous. So, it was a moment where the United States demonstrated just how much poverty is a choice.
VALLAS: I love that that’s where you started us off, right? Because that’s a frequent refrain that we bring in to Off-Kilter episodes. Poverty is a political choice. It’s not inevitable. It is something that our leaders choose to allow. And I can’t think of many examples in recent memory that so thoroughly prove that point than the fact that the United States was able to cut child poverty nearly in half almost overnight with the sweep of one pen, right? And that was the American Rescue Plan, as you mentioned. That expansion of the Child Tax Credit was historic. A lot of folks have described it as the United States stepping up to the plate and joining many of its peer nations in having a guaranteed minimum income for families with kids, which is what that policy was when it was in place for that one year. And so, folks are probably familiar, if they listen to Off-Kilter, with that policy. And I’ll also send folks back to a prior episode that we did, which we’ll have in show notes, that has a lot more of that kind of in the weeds what was that Child Tax Credit expansion?
But Indi, part of why I’m really excited to talk to you about this isn’t just because you’re the guy that testifies in front of Congress about this subject, right? And you do know more about it than most humans probably want to know! But it’s also because you’re somebody who’s been working on this issue for a very long time, and you know a lot of the story behind how that policy actually became that historic one-year experiment. And obviously, we wish it were not a one-year experiment. We wish it were still in place, and we should talk about that as well. It’s part of why we need to keep talking about the Child Tax Credit and all the good that that expansion did, rather than just moving on and saying that one year happened, and eh, guess it didn’t get expanded longer term.
But as I was thinking about this conversation we were gonna have today, I had massive flashbacks coming to when you and I were both I think in some ways actually still kind of growing up in this work. We were in different roles. I was sort of a I’m not sure what title I was in. I was in some role at the Center for American Progress on the Poverty to Prosperity Program over there. You were at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. And this was about eight years ago. I remember being in a room with a whiteboard, and we were all, you and me and several other of our friends and colleagues in the work, talking about options for reducing child poverty that might actually be politically viable, right? And I remember in some of those whiteboarding conversations the Child Tax Credit really being a big part of what we all thought, well, maybe this might be an avenue because of its historic bipartisan support. So, I’m curious if you wanna share any memories you have about kind of how we got to the point of this becoming even a one-year experiment. Some of what I love doing most on Off-Kilter is kind of pulling the curtain back on how policy gets made, because usually the stuff people talk about is just the talking points that are, hey, this is the official story. What do you remember about the journey to actually getting the Child Tax Credit expansion to become law?
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, Rebecca, I’ll share some of what I remember but also some history that predates my work here. But the thing I would say is important to take away from the experience, even though we haven’t yet sort of won on permanent policy, is it’s very important to dream big, and it’s very important to then plot an actual strategy how to achieve that dream. And we can’t control everything in our politics and in our policy environment. But you wanna know your North Star, where you’re headed, and only then can you really figure out what are the steps that you can take that make us likelier to achieve that North Star? And there’ll be reasonable disagreements, and we won’t always know the future. And it’s hard to imagine these counterfactuals, but this is a great example where folks had been dreaming big for some time.
And you can go all the way back to the 1991 National Commission on Children, a bipartisan body established by Congress, and it issued its report in March of that year. There were 34 members, and that included many appointed by Ronald Reagan, president at the time, as well as some appointed by the two houses of Congress. So, they actually came to unanimous agreement on almost all of their recommendations. And one of those recommendations where there was unanimous agreement was $1,000 per child, today, maybe $2,250 refundable credit, which means it would be paid regardless of a family’s income. And they noted that the United States was the only Western industrialized nation that does not have a child allowance policy or some other universal public benefit for families raising children. And that’s an exact quote from them. That was 1991. Unfortunately, that was still true before the American Rescue Plan Act. Yet this bipartisan commission produces this report. And you might think nothing came about from it, but there was legislative momentum for years after that from both parties, including with the Contract with America, or as some not so affectionately call it the Contract on America. But in 1994, it did include a $500 a year Child Tax Credit.
And ultimately, after other bills proposing it, President Clinton established it in a bipartisan tax bill, and you started seeing more and more proposals building upon this in the mid-1990s. But we finally got a Child Tax Credit in 1997. It was not the spectacularly effective policy that advanced economic justice that we saw briefly in 2021. But over time, both parties started expanding it and building upon it. The only real restriction that was added to make it tougher for families was a restriction on children with individual tax identification numbers. So, they’re not eligible for a Social Security number because of their immigration status. That was added only in 2017 by the Trump tax law. And that is a deeply unfortunate policy that excludes over a million children, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, and one that I certainly think we need to reverse for children who are gonna grow up in this country and are growing up in this country.
And ultimately, I think what has been recognized is that families deserve support in raising children. And this is a basic, basic amount of support. This is not enough to live off of, but it’s some stability. In 2019 the National Academies produced a roadmap on reducing child poverty. It included folks like the conservative Ron Haskins, who helped develop the 1996 welfare law, which I strongly think was a enormous mistake and quite harmful. But he backed these recommendations. There are these options, policy options, right? Rebecca, you may’ve discussed it elsewhere on the podcast, but one of the packages that they put forward included a child allowance similar to what we got in American Rescue Plan Act.
So, look. You can always say that one thing pushed us over the finish line to get us at least to that point we got to where we tried out the big, bold policy we really wanted to try out. Not perfect, but it was pretty darn close to what advocates and researchers were saying was needed. But it sometimes just takes a lot of people pushing in their own ways. So, whatever your talents are, you can bring them to these fights, whether you’re a researcher, whether you’re an activist, or an advocate. And let’s not ignore that there’s been lots of organizing on the ground. This is not something that just happened with a bunch of national policies. There are efforts throughout the country, especially since the ‘96 welfare law got our cash assistance system to essentially try out something like these guaranteed income policies for children and for mothers, etc. And I think that helped a lot with the momentum. We could see that these were viable policies, that in fact, all the worries were misplaced. Lots of research has shown that even in the short run, something like 19 out of 20 parents work about the same or maybe more even, and no more than sort of one percent might reduce some work. And even then, you’ve got to remember, the benefits are so big for the kids that the kids work more when they’re adults.
So anyway, I can keep going on and on, as you know, including about how we got here. But it took a lot of the policy proposals that folks like Center for American Progress did with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality and others, The Century Foundation as well. Jeff Madrick there I know has been really fighting this fight for a long time. We’ve got champions like Rosa DeLauro. But you can also look at organizing on the ground when cash became so scarce for so many families, especially those with children and young children, and we started focusing on things like diaper need and menstrual products and things that you can’t buy with SNAP, formerly food stamps, but that people need. And without cash, it’s impossible to function in this country.
VALLAS: I love that you mentioned Rosa DeLauro, Congresswoman from Connecticut. And in fact, she was part of that episode that I referenced that we’ll put in show notes talking about what she loves to call “Social Security for Children.” That’s how she talks about this policy, right, that North Star that you referred to. But I also love how you put that. It’s you gotta dream what’s the North Star, and then you gotta think about what’s the strategy for how you actually get there, right? ‘Cause the dreaming is just the first part. You also need to figure out what conditions need to be true, working backwards from that North Star so that you can actually make it happen, even if it’s something that seems impossible or outside of the Overton window, as political scientists might put it today.
Indi, to that point, one of the things that I feel like is worth actually bringing in here because it goes into that strategy point—and I wanna be clear, there’s a lot of people who have worked on getting the Child Tax Credit to that point, and you named and I named a couple of folks. There’s so many more that we’re not naming as well. This has been something a lot of folks have worked on—but one of the programs that is also implicitly referenced in some of what you just went through in terms of that history is called TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That is the program that was created. It’s a block grant that is deeply, deeply inadequate to meeting the needs of today’s families with children, poor families with children. And it really helps just a drop in the bucket, right, relative to the folks who actually should be supported if we wanna put our money where our mouth is. It was what was created by that welfare law that you mentioned in 1996 that I also share no positive views about! And side note, I’ve been meaning to have Peter Edelman on the show to talk, back on the show, to talk about that. And so, this is reminding me we need to do that. Peter, being a longtime colleague of yours as well, who you worked with at the Georgetown Center that you mentioned.
But why am I bringing up TANF? Well, because back to that strategy question, right? If our vision is we don’t wanna have any child poverty in this country, we believe that in a nation as rich as the United States, we shouldn’t have child poverty—I also would say we shouldn’t have any poverty—but if we’re talking about child poverty, there is a program, TANF, that is theoretically supposed to be part of our policy response to solving that goal. Why, in your opinion, is expanding TANF not necessarily the strategy that has that political viability that one might want? And what makes the Child Tax Credit more of the path that you and I and many others along the way have felt might actually be the avenue to achieving this goal? Curious if you wanna comment on that a little bit as well.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Yeah. No, I’d love that opportunity. And look, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Peter Edelman, and not only his inspiration and mentorship, but supervision. He’s actually in multiple ways been my boss, and I really admire him for resigning in protest of the ‘96 welfare law. It is one of, I think, the more significant moments, not just him but a couple others resigning from the Clinton administration after President Clinton finally signed a version of this bill after two vetoes, if I recall correctly. So, look. I think the central problem with focusing primarily on expanding TANF is that the structure is unsound. That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t imagine a more effective version of TANF. I sort of joke. My wife is such a talented cook, among her many talents, that she’s never had a dish she couldn’t improve upon. And Rebecca, I feel like you might relate to this, but I’ve never seen a policy I couldn’t improve upon. So, that’s where I sort of do my cooking. And I think there’s a lot you could do to improve TANF, moving a little bit in the wrong direction with the recent debt ceiling agreement, although there’s some opportunity for some interesting experiments there.
But one of the challenges in the United States with programs that give strong deference to states like TANF does, is it virtually guarantees racial disparities, very sizable in some cases, because states have so much control over their TANF programs. There’s so few federal safeguards in contrast with, say, SNAP, for example, and to a lesser extent Medicaid, although, Medicaid, I think, is a decent model. The problem has been the Supreme Court said that expansions are optional if they’re not completely paid for by the federal government. So, what you see in TANF is states with the largest Black population shares in particular have the harshest policies. They serve the smallest share of families with children who live below the poverty line. They often give the most modest benefits relative to the poverty line or even housing costs as a local proxy. And they often sanction and punish people the most.
So, without very strong federal safeguards, whenever we allow states a lot of freedom—we see this now with unemployment insurance, too, by the way, which you and I have worked on over the years as well—the states take that opportunity not to produce the most optimal policies based on research and experimentation, which you would love to see if states were sort of quote-unquote “the laboratories of democracy.” But in some ways, they became the laboratories of deprivation. And states, especially in the South and Southeast where I grew up, actually, like Georgia, have frankly quite meanspirited policies that harm the people who most need help.
And the other thing I would say is, again, it doesn’t mean that you can’t improve these programs, but the stigma of participating in some programs like TANF can be quite a contrast to filing for taxes. Filing for taxes can be an affirming experience. It can reaffirm the fact that every person living in this country effectively pays taxes, whether it’s sales, property, payroll, income, local, state, or federal. And generally, the process can be much smoother and done entirely online. There’s just not the same sense of distrust that people experience when applying for public benefits like TANF.
VALLAS: Yeah, I appreciate so much so many dimensions of what you just brought in, but included in that being what happens when we make policy that then leaves deference to the states. It feels like that is going to be a very live conversation for us on a number of different policy fronts moving forward. And that’s gonna be a recurring theme, I think, for many of the issues that we talk about on this podcast and the need for that federal floor being something that we ensure, no matter what state, red or blue, that somebody lives in, so that you’re not playing a lottery based on what state you live in, and with the racial disparities exacerbated as well, as you mentioned.
Indi, before we shift gears, I wanna ask one last question about the Child Tax Credit, which is sort of what’s the road ahead? You actually recently testified before Congress about the impact of the Child Tax Credit expansion on kids and families and that cutting of child poverty nearly in half that I mentioned before. But what was your message to federal policymakers, and what do you see as the road ahead, given that we’re, I know I’m not alone in this conversation in hoping that that one-year experiment is not just something we leave for the history books.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, let me start with saying my overarching message to policymakers is that research makes very clear that everyone needs a basic foundation to thrive and access opportunity in this country. There is not a tradeoff, when we’re talking about policies like the Child Tax Credit, between economic opportunity and security. There is not a tradeoff between equity and efficiency. We have such extreme levels of deprivation, hardship, and exclusion in this country that these sorts of policies are just uniformly positive. Even if a parent, say, spends a little bit more time away from work, that might be good for their kids. And that’s another conversation we should have someday about how we demand the impossible from caregivers and parents, and it actually undermines our broader national needs, like growing a strong population to continue to sustain our democracy and our economy.
As far as a path forward, I don’t have a crystal ball. But what we have seen in the past, and based on some of the rhetoric I heard from Republicans and Democrats, I think is essentially a deal where Democrats get some or all of something like the American Rescue Plan Act in exchange for tax cuts that the Republicans want for corporations or the wealthy. There will be a question of whether that deal is worth it. But I will just note that the Trump tax law mostly expires at the end of 2025, and the Democrats have a lot of leverage because unfortunately, this has become a relatively partisan issue. The Democrats are almost uniformly in support of something like what President Biden enacted in 2021, and the Republicans are almost uniformly opposed to something like that Child Tax Credit. But the Democrats presumably are going to be quite willing to let even the provisions they might’ve liked in the Trump tax laws expire, because overall the Trump tax laws exacerbated inequality and did very little to improve economic conditions for folks in the working class and the middle class. So, you can imagine some leverage there where the Republicans are so desperate to prioritize their tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that they’re willing to cut a deal on the Child Tax Credit.
Look, democracies are fundamentally about compromise. And I think that we should explore lots of different paths forward and see what’s possible. We also don’t even know the composition of our legislature, national legislature at that time, right? There’ll be a whole election in between, so we’ll have to see. But the fact is that this is now a priority in a way it never was for those who do champion it, and we have built broad support. Bills like the American Family Act, Senator Sherrod Brown, Senator Michael Bennet, and others have led to build broad consensus through the Senate and similarly through the House. So, I’m at least pleased to see that it is such a high priority, and we will have to see what comes from that.
VALLAS: And of course, implicit in everything you just said is just yet another reminder of why it’s so important to vote, right? 2024, kind of a big year for a lot of reasons, one of which being that we are gonna have a lot that gets decided in terms of that next set of priorities. And this is on that list, given that 2025 time horizon that you mentioned.
So, Indi, I’m gonna shift gears a little bit, and I’m gonna spend the rest of our time actually asking you some questions that I haven’t had the chance to ask you before. So, I’m actually really excited to learn a little bit about you in the process. I mentioned I’ve known you for 12 years, which blows my mind a little bit when I say that. It makes me actually feel like we’re getting old. But I wanna start by asking, what is your personal mission statement, if you had to articulate something? And I’m curious if you have any insight in how you came to find it.
DUTTA-GUPTA: I don’t know if I’ve ever quite been asked that, Rebecca, but I will say that I think about my professional goals as using whatever energy and talents, skills, and knowledge I have to advance social justice with integrity. I think how we do it does matter, and I do think that in different moments of my life there may be different ways to do that. And I’ve been really delighted to, at times, work very close to folks in power, whether as a volunteer advising presidential campaigns or working in Congress. And I’ve also worked at an academic setting, as you know, at Georgetown University with Peter Edelman. And I’m really excited about what we’re doing now at CLASP for research and education and advocacy organization.
How I came to find it is really by thinking about what motivated me, what inspired me, and to some extent, what makes me feel really terrible. And it makes me feel awful that we allow so much inequity, deprivation, hardship, exclusion. It makes me feel sad in and of itself, but also, when I think about the country that we’re leaving for our kids. And as you know well, I have a six-year-old and ten-year-old. Famously the ten-year-old remembers you as the person who stapled your clothes together when you came to one of my birthday parties. But—
VALLAS: I’m never gonna live that down, ever! And I feel like the context should be shared, but not now. Keep going. There was a hole in my clothing! What was I to do? [huge laugh]
DUTTA-GUPTA: [laughs] But yeah, you did the right thing. I don’t judge. But I remember thinking the night when Donald Trump was elected president through the electoral college system we have, just how concerned I was, frankly, for my children because of the rhetoric. He used anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lot of rhetoric that implied that only some of us are truly American. And that motivates me. I mean, I was already doing this work, but I just, I believe in the potential of this country, the promise of it. I have no delusions about how far we need to go, how far short we’ve come, and how sometimes we’re moving in the wrong direction.
And I think I worry a lot about issues like climate justice, the extraordinary heat that workers are exposed to. And one of the reasons why I love the name of your podcast is yes, fundamentally, power, the economy, our democracy, it’s all out of balance. And we need to shift power to working people, to folks who have been especially pushed to the sidelines by our political processes. So, people always say that they like the underdog, but for me it’s just about a fundamental sense of fairness, of justice, of knowing that so much of what happens in our lives were outside of our control. I could’ve grown up in India, but my parents chose to immigrate to the United States. Nobody controls their circumstances of birth, and very few people control their circumstances of childhood. So, I think there’s so much talent and potential in every single person to contribute in their own way, and a phenomenon in conditions like poverty hold people back.
VALLAS: I love the way that you framed all of that up, and I feel like it’s gonna segue into my next question, which may or may not be a question you’ve also ever been asked, which is if you are a superhero—and as with everyone that I have on this podcast, I believe that you are—what are your superpowers?
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, I definitely don’t think of myself as a superhero or a hero in any way whatsoever. But I will say that I think one of my strengths is that I can often connect with people from very different walks of life. I grew up in an extremely conservative area of Georgia at the time. It’s not so much anymore. And I learned to connect with people who had very different political views than me. And I had people who’d say to me by the time I was graduating from high school, “You know, Indi, I don’t agree with you on your political views, but I would vote for you in a heartbeat if you ran for office.” Which I haven’t done. I have no intention of doing. But it’s sort of, I mean, in general, that’s probably not the best way to vote. But I do [laughs]…it did sort of underscore for me how important it is to really connect with people. And I think that’s something that I can do. We’re not always at our best. And I think I can try to meet people where they’re at. And that’s really important, I think, for doing this work. We’re all in some ways part of broader movements. There’s no organization that’s on its own pushing some particular agenda, so we’re all part of broader movements, right? And I think a core part of movement building and building solidarity is meeting people where they’re at and trying to bring them along and doing that respectfully. So, I think that is something that feels like at this point comes very naturally to me.
And then I’d say the other thing is, you touched on this at the beginning, that I’ve worked in a whole range of different issues. I tend to see connections between issues very intuitively. So, you could pick two topics, whether it’s housing and climate or any two topics really, and I could probably quickly tell you how, in my mind, they’re deeply intertwined. So, of course, we have to deal with things like committee jurisdiction in Congress and make sure we follow realistic strategies to achieving some of our national policy goals in particular. But understanding those connections, I think, is really important, especially because I think we’ll ultimately win on a lot of these issues when we shift power, we elevate people who have current and recent lived experience with these issues, sometimes hidden experience, but nevertheless real. So, I would say those are the talents that I bring to the fight.
VALLAS: I love all of that. And I also super appreciate that you gave us a full Sherman statement [laughing] for the record. You are not running. You have no plans to run. You heard it here first, although many people would love for you to, I’m sure, at some point.
Indi, what is your walk-up song, if you have to pick one?
DUTTA-GUPTA: Yeah. So, it’s Unstoppable by Sia, but it’s not, I hope, hopefully I’m not sort of annoyingly persistent. It’s more that I am actually sort of patient and methodical. There are a lot of things that are one-year fights. There’ve been a lot more five, ten, 15, 20-year fights. I didn’t mention this earlier, but I worked on the Child Tax Credit when I worked on the Ways and Means Committee staff in the United States House of Representatives from 2007 through 2010. And one of the fights I was most proud of was continuing to try to expand access to the Child Tax Credit for folks with the lowest incomes. And we made a lot of progress, and here we were then, more than a decade later in 2021. And before that, I tried to certainly lift up the Child Tax Credit with various hats I wore and including work that I think helped lead, of course, to then-candidate Joe Biden committing to the big Child Tax Credit expansion, which he had never committed to publicly support it previously until I think around September of the election against Donald Trump. And contrary to popular belief, candidates mostly do try to follow through on their promises. Sometimes they change their mind, and some of those examples are quite famous. But generally, the evidence shows that they try. So, getting a candidate to commit to something, to promise something is generally a worthwhile endeavor if that’s the change you wanna see in the world.
VALLAS: Which is part of why I know among your many hats that you’ve worn, you mentioned one of the more significant actually has been volunteering for presidential campaigns because of the significance of getting candidates to commit. And of course, obviously just the national platform of the political debate that happens in the context of national elections. Indi, I love how you, I love that you chose Unstoppable, which I love for you. And I’ll just share we’re actually putting together a playlist of all the walk-up songs that folks choose. Obviously, you’re gonna be part of that, and I’m really glad that Unstoppable will be part of it.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Any repeats yet?
VALLAS: Do I what?
DUTTA-GUPTA: Do you have any repeats? Do you have any repeats yet?
VALLAS: No, the season is young!
VALLAS: No. So, no repeats yet. But Unstoppable’s actually part of my morning hype-up mix. It’s one. And I don’t actually have a lot of songs on it, so I love that that’s one that you also chose. And part of why I love that for you, but also why I love that for anyone who identifies as an advocate, is because one of the phrases that stuck with me early in my career is that an advocate is someone who simply refuses to go away. [laughs] And that is a lot of it, right? Yeah, as you said you hopefully are not annoying. You hopefully are not overly persistent in a way that is turning anyone off. But persistence and determination is a big part of what you embody so beautifully.
So, Indi, on the flip side of that coin, one of the things that I’ve committed to having as a permanent fixture of this show is a topic that we spent a lot of time digging into earlier this year as actually a dedicated season about self-care and what Audre Lorde meant when she said, “Self-care is political warfare.” And so, as someone you often refer to these days as “the reformed Rebecca Vallas,” I’m gonna ask you a question that years ago in our relationship I would never have thought to ask you, which is how does self-care show up for you? How do you take care of yourself so that you can stay in this work for the long haul, so you can be unstoppable? I recognize that there’s no perfect answer to that, and it’s a challenge for all of us. But I’m curious your thoughts on that theme.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, that’s a great question and a very generous description of me. I appreciate that, Rebecca. And I will say that I have increasingly learned to think of self-care as part of the work. I think that this sort of work is hard. I partly got into it because I do like a challenge. I think that it is by definition a marathon, or it should be in some ways, because even if you’re winning all the time, if you stop, everything can be reversed. And we’ve seen that with half-century attacks ending the constitutional right to abortion, eviscerating much of the Voting Rights Act, decimating unions, which I think are a huge reason why we have seen essentially the fortunes of the people with the lowest incomes and the highest incomes follow completely different paths over the last few years.
So, I think of self-care as sort of part of the work. I mentioned earlier that we don’t always show up at our best, and that’s okay, and that’s life, and things happen. People pass away, we have injuries and accidents and health needs, and I have a couple chronic health conditions myself that I have to grapple with on a daily basis. They sometimes limit what I can do, and I know that if I don’t take care of myself and spend time with my family and loved ones and call friends, I will not serve my organization or the cause very effectively. And there are moments in my life when I have that energy and ability and lack of other responsibilities to just work incredibly hard and sometimes long hours because that’s what’s needed. And there are moments in my life where I can’t do that, and I shouldn’t do that. And I think finding that sort of balance is gonna be different for everyone. But I’m really glad you’re highlighting it. I’ve been inspired certainly by you. And no one, no one I think I know has worked as hard as you’ve worked at times in your life. And we all know what toll that can take too. That should only be temporary when you’re constantly on.
I’ve also come to believe that sometimes doing things like what we would consider self-care can actually be a creative force in our work and help inspire us, help us think a little differently, sometimes detach from some of the work. And in that sense, it’s not just that it helps me show up for my work the way that I would like to, but it can actually contribute in a direct way.
VALLAS: I love that answer. And I’m sure there are plenty of people out here who have worked harder than I have ever worked, and many of them are people who have two and three and four jobs, who are the people that we’re looking to build a better economy for. But yes, and you are right that I have come a long way! And that’s why I’ve tried to be actually fairly public about the work that goes behind the scenes, that goes on behind the scenes, because so often we show only the parts that we want people to see. And it leads people to misleading conclusions about what is healthy or what is right for them to do, so.
Indi, you mentioned family in addition to being an organizational leader, a policy leader, you’re also a really wonderful and engaged and loving dad and husband and son, among other things. How do you balance family and work? What are the challenges there? I’m curious how that connects to self-care since you brought it in.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Yeah, that’s a great question because it very much does connect for me to self-care. I certainly, as we’re trying to say now, try to free two birds with one key. So, a less violent version of the expression about two birds.
VALLAS: Wait. I’m sorry. That one’s really weird. I’m much more of a fan of “feed two birds with one scone,” if you’re looking for an alternative!
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, that, I like that. I like that. It’s less liberation oriented, but I do like that because it’s also, it is joy oriented.
VALLAS: It is.
DUTTA-GUPTA: And that’s part of self-care too ‘cause this work can be genuinely traumatizing and distressing and quite emotionally draining, so you have to find joy. Sometimes some of that’s alone time. That’s how I’ve gotten through, I think, the entire Marvel Multiverse, except for maybe the very latest release. But sometimes that’s kayaking on the Potomac with your family, as I’ve done recently, or spending time with video games or Rubik’s Cubes or 3-D printers that I do with my son. But the two birds with one key or feeding two birds with one scone is also finding time where my parents, sister, my kids, my parents-in-law, others can all spend time together. And also having friends who I have gotten in the great habit of just picking up the phone and calling when I’m walking to and from somewhere. Yesterday, for example, the weather was good enough. I walked from near Metro Center all the way to where I live near Van Ness CDC in D.C., so a few miles, and I talked to a couple of old friends on the way. So, finding those opportunities, even if they’re short, brief conversations, I think, can sort of rejuvenate, re-energize, and also ground you. Sometimes we’re playing roles in our jobs, but we’re also just regular people. And I think it’s important to sort of feed that regular person, whatever your role is, however demanding that role might be.
VALLAS: I need to take back what I said. You’re right. “Free two birds with one key” definitely has the liberation theme to it, so I’ve gotta like it for that reason. I think I happen to be a fan of the scone option because I have an allergy to gluten, and so part of me just is really jealous of the idea of eating a scone.
VALLAS: And so, I think I must be really into the scone as something I haven’t had in a long time.
Indi, I’m gonna ask you a question that you may or may not be thrilled that I’m about to ask. I think you’re gonna like that I’m gonna ask this, which is in the context of asking you, how does a sense of larger purpose fit into your work. As I was prepping for this episode, I got hit with a memory just sort of over the head. Oh, right. Didn’t Indi get married with his hand on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice? And so, am I remembering correctly? And maybe you wanna tell that story.
DUTTA-GUPTA: I am just stunned by your memory. But I did. I had to have a text. It’s typically a religious one. I’ll be transparent; I’m not very religious. But this one felt like a big, thick one that inspired me, and it kind of looks like religious text if you’ve ever held it and seen it.
ALLAS: Well, do you wanna tell the story of how you ended up picking it? What’s the significance of that book?
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, yeah, Sorry. So, I…. You know, it’s funny ‘cause we’ve been talking so much about things like costs and benefits. But in fact, in many ways, I have a sort of
(audio cuts out)
space sense of justice. And there is a line in that text in particular that goes something like, even though each person possesses an inviolability…that upon which even the welfare of the whole cannot override. I’m not getting it exactly right. It’s something like that. And it just underscored the concept of human dignity. But there’s actually another, for me, it did, there’s another back story there. ‘Cause the other book I was thinking about was actually Ralph Ellison’s Invisible [Man]. But that one also, to me, especially the sort of battle royale scene really underscored the concept of human dignity. And it’s probably the book of fiction that has most affected me. So, it was really about upholding human dignity why I chose the book. It’s not that I agree with everything in the book. I think there’s a lot to it: the veil of ignorance and this idea that inequities need some very strong justification and that folks would probably choose a much more just and equitable set of rules in society than we have. But that notion of upholding human dignity is something that I think I am committed to, have been committed to.
And I think Rawls, for folks who don’t know, a philosopher, actually wrote before that book, what I thought was one of the strongest defenses of a utilitarian philosophy. Essentially, look at costs and benefits. And I don’t know if he did that as an exercise to then dismantle it later. But I also thought his ability to see things from different perspectives but still have a very strong sense of justice and purpose and conviction was very similar to how I felt about my own views. I can often, we often say, “Oh, I don’t understand how this person can do this wild thing that it’s bananas what they’re doing it.” And maybe it’s deeply unjust. And I often have a sense that I can understand it. I think it’s just as wrong as someone who can’t understand it, but that I can understand it, and I can break it down. And then I can also explain why I think it’s wrong. So, that sense of appreciating and understanding even your sort of opponent, your enemy and their logic and their thinking is something that I’m very much in comfort with.
VALLAS: I love leaving this conversation there. We’re gonna run out of time, but I knew I wouldn’t regret asking that question. And we’ll have plenty of links in show notes because of the ground that we’ve covered today. But Indi, thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you for this conversation. And thank you for all of your work, for your friendship over the years. And we’re gonna let you get back to your busy day. But Indi Dutta-Gupta is president and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. You can learn lots more about his work and also CLASP and everything they’ve got going on there in show notes. Indi, thank you, thank you, thank you. And I’m giving you just a big hug over Zoom.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Well, thank you, Rebecca. This was a lot of fun, and I would encourage you to consider some Off-Kilter Comic-Con type convening in person. And sign me up if you do. I’d love to meet folks who listen, folks who are interviewed and discuss things with you. And I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap between the two, and I think it would be a really fun gathering.
VALLAS: I love that idea. Maybe we’ll settle for some kind of a monthly happy hour, but to be decided. [theme music returns] Indi, thank you, and we’ll have you back on at some point.
DUTTA-GUPTA: Thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.