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CLARENCE PAGE: What’s missing in 2022 campaign issues? Child poverty

Well, that was nice while it lasted.

For six months we seemed to be making real progress against childhood poverty.

The progress came as a consequence of a national emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic. President Joe Biden expanded the child tax credit to help bring relief to low-income families and, immediately after benefits went into effect in July 2021, they showed what experts have said for decades: Direct cash grants to families in financial distress can make a world of difference.

Six months of payments lifted millions of children out of poverty, according to various studies.

The tax credit lowered tax bills for 36 million families and lifted nearly 4 million children out of poverty with monthly payments, a major initiative that Republican leaders had killed earlier.

As the liberal New Republic cheered, “The result was vastly beneficial: In the six months of the expanded CTC, the overall rate of child poverty in the United States was slashed by 30 percent; food insufficiency was cut by 26 percent.”

An August report from the Niskanen Center predicted that the CTC would “boost consumer spending by $27 billion, generate $1.9 billion in revenues from state and local sales taxes, and support over 500,000 full time jobs at the median wage.”

The tax credit brought many benefits and comparisons of Biden to Franklin D. Roosevelt, until it couldn’t.

Unfortunately for those of us who were delighted by the poverty-fighting news, the 2021 law called only for a year of payments. That was partly because Democrats believed the costly program would be so popular among voters that politicians wouldn’t let it expire.

That’s how things usually work — or used to work — in Washington, particularly for programs such as Social Security or Medicare that become popular enough to be “political third rails.” As the saying goes, touch it and you die.

But that logic didn’t anticipate a pivotal player, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who became, as he often does, the deciding vote in the closely divided Senate. Although he represents one of the poorest states in the Union, it also is one of the most conservative.

He would not approve the aid to families unless there were work requirements, he said, or people would simply opt out of the labor force. Democratic leaders decided to leave the child tax credit benefits out of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act in order to save the rest of his agenda.

What now? Sen. Mitt Romney, former Republican presidential nominee from Utah and eager to restart a pro-family GOP, has proposed his own version of Biden’s original tax benefits in a way that almost sets a minimum income floor for parents.

His Family Security Act 2.0 would award parents $4,200 a year for each child under 6, and $3,000 for older youngsters under 17. His tax credits, reducing dollars owed to the IRS, would net most poor families more in cash refunds than federal taxes owed, sort of like a Republican FDR.

But the measure has been too moderate to excite many Democrats who, in this election year, seem to have turned their attention elsewhere, much to the chagrin of some liberal campaign strategists.

Democratic consultant Stan Greenberg, who is credited with identifying the working-class white “Reagan Democrats” who switched to vote for Ronald Reagan, sees grim days ahead for issues such as child poverty in today’s party.

“It seems the battle for Congress is being fought in the nation’s middle-class suburbs,” he writes in The American Prospect, “and that for Democrats, the votes will be won or lost on the issues of abortion, immigration, crime and the danger of Trumpism. The rescue of millions of children from poverty does not seem likely to resonate in the 2022 battlegrounds.”

Indeed, Democrats appear to my eyes to be in a reactive mood, directing their attention toward stopping Donald Trump’s rise and pushing back against the consequences of his presidency, particularly the overturning of Roe v. Wade, among other hot-button issues.

Still, the economics of today’s America still matter to working-class and middle-class Americans too much to be casually elbowed aside. Voters of all colors and almost all classes struggle with employment issues, housing costs, education costs and economic stresses that call for a unified response from both parties.

Instead, we seem to be seeing a 2.0 version of the 2020 presidential race, when opposition to Trump became as much of a unifier for Dems as supporting him was for Republicans.

In other words, I detect in both parties a poverty of ideas.

Contact Clarence Page at [email protected]

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