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The child allowance debate reveals the emptiness of ‘working-class conservatism’

| Wednesday, February 17, 2021

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the most significant intraparty division in Washington recently is related to the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, with seven Republicans joining Democrats in voting to convict him for incitement of insurrection — and you might even be right. But in the midst of all that furor, Sen. Mitt Romney decided two weeks ago to buck his party on another issue, which may prove more lasting and consequential: becoming the first Senate Republican to endorse a child allowance. 

Romney’s proposal, entitled the Family Security Act, would send families a monthly cash benefit of $350 for children under six years old and $250 for those 6-18, up to five children. It’s a simple program predicated on a moral truth — that no child should grow up in poverty — and an economic truth — that families who raise children are producing a major social benefit at great financial cost to their household, and ought to have some of that cost offset.

Romney’s proposal mirrors a key platform plank of the Biden campaign, and Senate Democrats have since proposed a (slightly less generous) version of the program. The differences between the proposals are small relative to the magnitude of the program, and most cut in Romney’s favor — his benefit is more generous, phases out later, is administered through the Social Security Administration and would be permanent. The key difference is the fiscal impact — the Democratic proposal would be a one-time expenditure folded under COVID-19 stimulus, whereas Romney’s plan is deficit-neutral and paid for primarily by consolidating existing child benefits and eliminating the SALT tax deduction, which primarily accrues to the wealthy (and before you cry foul — poor and middle-class families still end up significantly ahead). Plus, the proven resilience of social programs after they are created suggests that Democrats would be fools to pass up the opportunity to make the child allowance permanent on a bipartisan basis. 

The Romney proposal is great, and great for a lot of liberal, conservative and non-ideological reasons: It would cut child poverty by a third, enable parents to pursue the family size and structure they desire without the looming threat of poverty, decrease existing marriage penalties and be easier to administer than current benefit programs. And it’s permanent. There’s a reason 33 of the 34 other OECD countries offer more generous family benefits than we do. It’s good policy. That’s not the point.

The more interesting aspect of this debate is how quickly many on the right have abandoned all pretense of a “working-class conservatism,” which many hoped Trump had ushered in, and retreated to well-worn arguments against antipoverty programs of any kind. Marco Rubio is of course the worst offender here — his penchant for blowing in the wind has taken him from calling for a “pro-worker Republican Party” to slamming the child allowance as “welfare assistance” that would benefit the undeserving poor. But (dis)honorable mention too goes to Republican leadership, which has stayed silent on the proposal, as well as the American Enterprise Institute, which helpfully chimed in to argue that poverty is a useful incentive to keep poor families on the right track. 

(The primary economic argument here, if you are still inclined to consider these sorts of objections in good faith, is that the child allowance would produce an income effect that decreases work incentives and therefore the labor supply — in essence, that some parents would have enough supplemental income from the child allowance that they would choose to work fewer hours in order to spend more time with their children. If you can believe it, this is an argument against the proposal.)

Admittedly, the evolution to such a pro-family, antipoverty proposal has been a long time coming for Romney, he of “47%” fame as the 2012 Republican nominee. But given the hypothesis that the Republican coalition is shifting to include more working-class voters, one has to wonder — why doesn’t he have more Republicans alongside him?

This may be surprising, at least, at the surface. But at a deeper level, the GOP’s reflexive opposition makes sense. Because passing a child allowance — or any significant government program that will provide material benefits to a broad class of citizens — is an existential threat to the present conservative strategy of attaining political power. 

At present, the Republican Party benefits from a powerful asymmetry — that the federal government doesn’t need to work to justify their political program. Democrats suggest that the government is a mutual project, to which you ought to contribute and which will look out for you in times of need — this requires the government to administer social programs in a timely and effective manner. By contrast, if the last four years are any indication, the GOP policy program consists of tax cuts for the rich, judicial confirmations and occasionally hauling Jack Dorsey before a committee. None of this requires state capacity; none of it touches the average voter’s life. And so freed from the notion that politics can provide them material benefits, large swaths of America are free to treat politics as entertainment — rooting on their team, obsessing over dramas and “dunks” and selecting the most enthralling personality to hold office. (If you think for a moment that this habit is confined to conservatives, turn on The Daily Show or John Oliver and then get back to me). Democrats have been gifted with unified control of government for the next two years, but there is no long-term road out of this polarized morass except the hard task of actually governing. The child allowance, as a broad social program that provides undeniable material benefits to a broad swath of the population, would be a major step in this direction. But since Reagan coined his nine “terrifying” words, the American Right has realized that their best path to lasting political power is to mock, deride and undercut the notion that government exists to help its citizens. So one can hardly expect them to support such a proposal.

All that to say: You can bloviate as much as you like about a populist realignment in the U.S., warn Democrats that they’re being “outflanked” on spending policies or point sanctimoniously at the European right’s (mixed) record of pro-worker policies. But the fact remains that until the Republican Party comes out in favor of policies that aid the material needs of working families, all their rhetoric about “working-class conservatism” will remain empty posturing. And there may not be incentive enough for them to do this on their own — our 45th President indicates that leaning on a primarily aesthetic politics of flag hugs and middle fingers is not necessarily a bad electoral strategy for Republicans. This will be a tough cycle for the GOP to ever break. I do hope the Democrats do it for them, by reminding Americans of what their government can and should provide. The child allowance is a good place to start.

Patrick Aimone is a junior in Sorin who looks forward to one day collecting a child allowance or two. He is the co-president of, but does not speak for, BridgeND, a non-partisan political education and discussion group committed to bridging the partisan divide through honest, respectful and productive discourse. BridgeND meets weekly on Mondays at 5 p.m and will be discussing the child allowance policy next Monday, Feb. 22. You can contact the club at [email protected] on Twitter @bridge_ND 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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