Opinion | We were making progress in child poverty. Why the hell did we stop?

Biden’s Build Back Better plan would have extended credit, but it would also have done dozens of other things. This made sense as a legislative strategy, but made messaging nearly impossible. Being for or against Build Back Better was not being for or against the child tax credit or climate policies or pre-K policies or expansion of the Affordable Care Act or changes in corporate taxes or investments in research and development or any of the dozens of other items on the bill. Insofar as anything defined the package in the public mind, it was the asking price: $3.5 billion.

This was not an unexplained messaging error. It’s the product of a broken Senate that now makes much of its major legislation through the bizarre budget reconciliation process, the perversions of which I described in an earlier column. Two of those issues affected Build Back Better. First, before you can write a reconciliation invoice, you must name the price tag of the invoice. “You start the debate in the wrong place,” Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me.

Second, because you can only do one or two reconciliation bills a year, you have to put together everything you fear the other side will obstruct. Getting voters to pay attention to a policy debate and hold their representatives accountable is hard enough. Getting them to track down six or 12, all of them thrown into a legislative sack, is impossible. This is another way obstructionism has made government more confused and less accountable.

Then there is the Manchin-and-Sinema factor. If Democrats had won the 2020 Senate races in North Carolina and Maine, maybe Build Back Better would have passed. But with a 50-50 Senate, they need a perfectly united caucus to pass anything without Republican votes, and they don’t have any. Senator Joe Manchin, in particular, was the pivotal vote and the Democrats lost him. Whether they could have won your vote is a counterfactual that I cannot convincingly answer.

But those who negotiated with him say Manchin had a particular problem with the child tax credit. He held the view that he gave too much money to poor people who were not working, encouraging them to remain unemployed or leave the jobs they already had. “I’ve shown him the evidence that countries with higher child allowances have higher labor force participation rates than our own country, and I haven’t persuaded him,” Bennett said, clearly frustrated.

The moral heart of this must not be lost. There are ways to make it easier for poor parents to work or, if necessary, make it more painful for them to remain unemployed. Condemning children to poverty should not be one of them. “There is this fundamental question of when, as a country, will we see the humanity in every child,” Parrott said. “Leaving children in extreme poverty is unacceptable because we don’t trust their parents or we don’t want to punish them.”

Inflation is also no reason to leave children in poverty. Extending the expanded child tax credit would cost about $100 billion per year for years to come, less than 0.5 percent of US GDP.

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