The Democratic Party is as ambitious on policy as it’s ever been. Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have put forward proposals to expand Medicare, establish universal child care and transform the economy to combat climate change. In Congress, Democrats have declared their intention to pass sweeping reforms and transformative social policies regardless of the political barriers.
But there is still one area of U.S. policy this ambition hasn’t reached: Expanding America’s existing social safety net. Neither congressional Democrats nor 2020 hopefuls have shown much interest in expanding the monthly benefits low-income Americans receive, even though they have a proven track record of helping families escape poverty.
“We know that these programs reduce poverty and reduce the chances that children will end up destitute over the course of their lives,” said Sanford F. Schram, a political scientist at City University of New York and the author of numerous books about America’s welfare state. “But they’ve become so demonized that nobody wants to stand up and defend them.”
Dozens of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of America’s welfare programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is a monthly food benefit that single-handedly pulled 3.4 million people out of poverty in 2017. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF, is a cash grant to single mothers that reduced the number of children living in extreme poverty by 14 percent in 2015. Rental assistance vouchers, which ensure that low-income families don’t spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, have been shown to reduce homelessness, improve health and prevent evictions.
And these programs have remained effective despite the relentless cuts that have reduced their scale and impact. Thanks to the Republican welfare reform agenda of the 1990s (and Bill Clinton’s signature), only one-quarter of single mothers eligible for TANF ever receive the benefit. Relentless cuts to Housing and Urban Development funding have restricted rental vouchers to one-quarter of eligible families. Childless adults in some states lost their SNAP benefits after just three months.
But rather than restore and strengthen these programs, Democrats have focused on social policies that benefit a broader swath of the electorate and deliver less assistance to families in extreme poverty.
“I’m not opposed to the existing programs, but we need so much more,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told HuffPost this week. “I don’t want to see us fight for incremental changes when we have a chance to make big changes.”
Warren pointed to the example of expanding housing vouchers, arguing that doing so would not do much good when there just aren’t enough houses to go around.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he plans to announce a comprehensive policy on housing vouchers at some point, pledging to “use all of the tools that we can” to address the housing crisis. Sanders proposed more affordable housing construction and a host of lending changes as part of his 2016 presidential platform, but didn’t propose an expansion of voucher programs.
Warren’s proposals so far favor plowing billions into affordable housing, child care and education — all of which could fundamentally improve life for the middle class ― and many of her 2020 competitors are on the same page.
When it comes to simply helping the poorest Americans, the presidential contenders seem constrained by the conventional wisdom among Democrats on Capitol Hill — that “welfare” programs can only be defended from Republican attacks, and the best way to expand the existing safety net is through tax credits.
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have pitched refunds for households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet proposed significantly expanding America’s existing Child Tax Credit. House Democrats are currently pushing an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit as part of a broader tax deal.
But while tax credits have well-established positive impacts on poverty, they also have severe limitations. Because they’re structured as yearly refunds, workers have to make ends meet all year with no assistance and then wait for a one-time refund check whose value they may not know in advance.
The structure of tax-based welfare policy also means that benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are unavailable to Americans who aren’t working — exactly the people who need cash support the most. The EITC subsidizes employers who pay low wages and penalizes workers who leave the job market to take care of children or elderly parents. For housing assistance, a yearly refund rather than a monthly supplement leaves workers vulnerable to evictions.
According to a study published last month, half of African American and Hispanic children live in families that don’t receive the full potential value of the tax credit. A 2016 study found that families earning less than $12,550 per year received almost no relief from the EITC at all.
“Tax credits have a middle-class bias,” Schram said. “Welfare helps people overcome a sudden dip in their income. Tax credits don’t have the same effect.”
Schram said Democrats favor tax credits over welfare expansion because they are still making policy to appease Republican criticisms rather than to assist the poorest Americans. Lawmakers hoped that restricting the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit to workers would shield them from the “welfare queen” smears of the 1980s. Even when they propose paying out tax credits in advance or other changes to make them more similar to welfare programs, Democrats insist that they’re not expanding the size of government.
Democrats have proposed things like universal childcare and making college free. The idea that those would be less controversial than expanding food stamps doesn’t strike me as obvious. Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Center for Law and Social Policy
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who flirted with a presidential run but ultimately decided against one, said he still hopes to work with Republicans to pass more generous tax credits. Republicans accepted larger tax credits during the Obama years, so Brown thinks they could go along again.
“That path is very much there,” Brown said this week.
These arguments, though, sound strikingly similar to the Democratic strategies of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. Nearly all of the signature policies of the 2020 campaign so far — The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, Warren’s entire campaign — show none of the same political expediency.
“Democrats have proposed things like universal child care and making college free,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a researcher at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “The idea that those would be less controversial than expanding food stamps doesn’t strike me as obvious.”
It’s also not obvious that Republicans will go along with Democrats’ efforts to expand tax credits. Though former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made overtures toward expanding the Child Tax Credit in 2014, he ultimately omitted the proposal from his 2017 tax plan. During the Obama Administration, Republicans proposed subjecting all EITC recipients to an IRS “mini audit” to confirm they weren’t lying about their income.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House tax committee, confirmed this stance in an interview this week, telling HuffPost that it seemed “especially fiscally irresponsible to enlarge fraudulent tax breaks.” (The EITC has a relatively high error rate, though many overpayments to EITC recipients may result from the complexity of the credit, which phases in and out according to income and varies depending on the number of dependent children in a household.)
Republicans have also, of course, attacked the rest of the social safety net for years, proposing severe cuts to food assistance and advocating for “work requirements” ― essentially time limits on benefits ― to be imposed on the beneficiaries of programs.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, denied that Democrats have been playing defense all this time.
“We’ve protected food assistance, we added additional opportunities for healthy foods in the farm bill, and certainly that is something,” Stabenow said.
There have been a few proposals to expand food benefits endorsed by a handful of House Democrats. But those have never garnered enough support to become a priority for party leadership. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of several such bills, said that Democrats will continue playing defense on this issue for the foreseeable future as the Trump administration attempts to cut welfare programs through regulation.
“We’re the richest country in history, where we have 40 million people who are food insecure or hungry,” McGovern said. “We all should be ashamed of that and we can do a hell of a lot better.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified Sen. Debbie Stabenow as being from Massachusetts. She is from Michigan.