On March 6, 2021, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who entered public office in 1975, turned to his colleague Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) on the Senate floor and said, “This is the best day of my career.”
Congress had passed an expanded version of the child tax credit as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s signature COVID-19 relief bill. The new policy is only a fragment of the sweeping bill, but it could be life-changing to families. And to a group of lawmakers in Congress, it was the culmination of decades of work.
Beginning July 15, most parents will receive monthly checks of up to $300 per child through the end of the year thanks to Democrats’ bill. The benefit amounts to a total of up to $3,600 per child under the age of 6 by the end of tax season; America’s poorest families, even those who don’t file taxes, stand to benefit. If implemented to its full potential, this expanded child tax credit could cut child poverty in the United States by half.
For Brown, who decided not to run for president in 2020 even though many thought he had a kind of blue collar credibility that would have made him a formidable candidate, the new policy could become a defining achievement of his political career.
“I have never done anything that has this kind ... of impact,” Brown told HuffPost in an interview, pausing mid-sentence to note the Affordable Care Act as an exception. “Ninety-two percent of kids in my state benefit from this.”
For nearly two decades, Brown, who co-wrote the Senate’s bill with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and other Democrats, brought together by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), have proposed expanding the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit to give low- and no-income working parents a benefit. It’s a low-key way of expanding the federal safety net after Republicans succeeded in making direct cash assistance utterly taboo in American politics.
The credits gradually got bigger, but this year Democrats had a major breakthrough, and Brown isn’t alone in feeling the gravity of the moment.
“You work 18 years on a project and it gets done, it was the high point of my career in the House of Representatives to get the child tax credit across the finish line,” DeLauro said. “Now we have to try and get this child tax credit made permanent.”
A Long Push
Some version of a child tax credit has been on the books in the United States since the late 1990s. But it has been small, and didn’t significantly increase family’s tax refunds or put extra cash in their pockets beyond tax season. Meanwhile, children have long suffered the highest poverty rate of any age group.
Democrats got a little bolder starting in 2016. Not only did DeLauro propose making the tax credit bigger, but she also said it should be fully available as cash, and that the IRS should pay it monthly, essentially creating a child allowance like the ones other countries have had for years. DeLauro is known in the administration for being a persistent advocate for the policy.
Brown set to work in 2019 to sell the tax credit to the public. After he announced he would not be running for president, he embarked on a “Dignity of Work” tour around the country, meant to bring working-class Americans back to the Democratic Party. The thrust of his platform was a suite of tax credits largely aimed at working-class people, including this expansion of the child tax credit.
At the time, he couldn’t have anticipated the weird mix of circumstances that made it possible to pass his bill, but it’s exactly the kind of big policy achievement he’s dreamed of.
In 2019, Brown published a book called “Desk 88” about past progressive senators, such as Alabama’s Hugo Black, who previously occupied Brown’s desk in the U.S. Senate. Before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Black championed labor laws that became a cornerstone of the New Deal in the 1930s, the policy agenda that slashed poverty and entrenched Democrats in power for decades.
Brown sees a parallel.
“For the first time in a long time, people are beginning to see that government can be on your side and government can do things that have an impact on people’s lives,” Brown said. “And that has a huge impact on other things we do as a country. ... This is a case that just happens to be that every Republican voted ‘no’ and every Democrat voted ‘yes.’”
Republicans did not sign on to this version of the expanded credit. But Josh McCabe, who wrote a book comparing the American child tax credit to more robust programs in Canada and the U.K., said he thinks Republicans may have inadvertently helped Democrats pass the bill.
In 2017, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pushed Republicans to double the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 — a policy McCabe helped Rubio’s office craft. It still could only be received at tax time, and it also wasn’t fully refundable, meaning many families were left out. But Republicans did some work to get the word out.
Now Democrats are building on that same underlying policy, and Republicans aren’t interested.
“There are conservatives that see this as tax relief for families and if you’re not doing that then it’s just welfare by another name, and they are still very resistant to it,” said McCabe, an assistant professor of sociology at Endicott College. “There are few of us that are a bit more open to this as helping with the cost of raising families, as being worthwhile even if it’s not technically tax relief.”
Democrats still describe the policy as a “tax cut” instead of a child benefit, although White House officials have thrown around the term “child allowance” — a more straightforward benefit that’s offered in many countries around the world — as well.
“People are not consumed with the nomenclature. They’re struggling. They’re just trying to survive economically,” DeLauro said. “That’s what the consequence of the legislation is about.”
Calling it a tax credit probably helped Democrats avoid trouble with moderates who would object to creating a new big government program. It also helped that Republicans had supported not just a bigger child tax credit but also two rounds of unconditional cash relief in response to the pandemic. When it came time to pass the American Rescue Plan this year, all Democrats were doing was continuing the new and incredibly popular tradition of sending people direct payments in trying times.
An Uncertain Future
As of now, the program is set to expire in 2021. And Biden has been reluctant to advocate for it to be put in place permanently, likely because of its cost. Instead, the White House is proposing extending this expanded child tax credit through 2025, when the Republican tax changes are set to expire as well.
All of these factors might make or break the program’s legacy.
“If this is made permanent then this is a pretty big policy win,” said Molly Michelmore, a history professor with a focus on fiscal policy and the welfare state at Washington and Lee University. “Generally speaking, giving kids stuff is pretty good politics.”
But, she said, it’s less clear whether Democrats will be able to claim political credit, specifically because this was done through the tax code instead of directly creating a new benefit.
“Social Security became a Democratic policy after 1935. Medicaid, Medicare were Democratic policies after 1965,” Michelmore said, adding that she’s not sure the earned income tax credit or child tax credit are seen as “a partisan policy one way or the other.”
Democrats are certainly trying, though. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) tweeted a mock-up of a child tax credit check that said “Courtesy of President Biden & Congressional Democrats. (Every republican voted against this).”
Even without Republican support, getting Democrats to prioritize a bigger child tax credit has been a challenge. The policy was going nowhere, but then the pandemic happened. Republicans embraced no-strings-attached payments to all but the richest American households, a major break from the tradition of excluding people with very little or no earned income. When they won the White House and the Senate, Democrats seized the momentum.
Key to the longevity of this program is the way Democrats set it up. Not only is this child tax credit fully refundable so that poor families could benefit from it and child poverty could be cut, they also increased the benefit overall. Politically, it’s going to be really difficult for lawmakers to let the credit expire and increase taxes on that many people.
“This was really ingenious,” McCabe said. “Anytime it reverts back to the old way, it’s going to affect poor families, working-class families and middle-class families. Creating that strong cross-class coalition is really good for keeping a policy in place.”
And for Brown, he’s hoping the child tax credit will validate Americans’ engagement in politics — and their votes for Democrats.
“I think it’s pretty clear that come next summer, people are gonna think, you know, I voted for Biden or even if I voted for Trump, I voted, but I’ve seen my life get better in the last year and a half,” Brown said. “They’re gonna see it in a big reminders-every-month way with the child tax credit.”