One Of Democrats’ Proudest Policy Achievements Is Missing From The Midterms

The child tax credit slashed child poverty, but hardly anyone except Sen. Michael Bennet is talking about it.
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Last year Democrats boasted about a new monthly allowance they’d created for households with kids.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “a life-changing victory for families” and described it as tantamount to “Social Security for children.”

President Joe Biden made a similar comparison and said it was one of the things he would be “most proud of” when his term ends.

But the allowance lasted only six months, and the triumphant messages have been largely absent from the campaign trail ahead of next weeks’ midterm elections, in which Republicans stand a strong chance of winning one or both chambers of Congress.

Democrats have instead mostly campaigned on protecting abortion rights, which are under threat after the Supreme Court declared an end to the federal right to abortion access over the summer, while Republicans have leaned on messages about crime, inflation and Biden.

When it comes to economic policy, Democrats have been more likely to talk about the original Social Security ― the beloved retirement benefit for seniors ― than the monthly benefit parents received last year through the expanded child tax credit.

Democratic campaign ads have highlighted the party’s support for reducing costs for the middle class, and any mention of “middle class tax cuts” could semi-plausibly be a reference to the child tax credit, since the monthly payments the IRS sent out last year technically were, in fact, tax credits.

But out of hundreds of campaign ads this cycle, few mention the child tax credit by name. According to a new analysis of campaign ads published Thursday by the Wesleyan Media Project, just 0.2% of federal campaign ads in the general election have mentioned the child tax credit.

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley hit his Democratic challenger, Mike Franken, for opposing the child tax credit because he favored repealing the 2017 Republican tax cuts, which expanded the credit before Democrats built on that expansion last year.

Another ad, from a super PAC boosting Evan McMullin, the independent challenging incumbent Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), calls out Lee for having opposed the Democratic child tax credit last year.

Neither of those got into any specifics about the child tax credit. From July through December, most parents in the U.S. received as much as $300 per child each month, a taste of the kind of child benefit that other developed countries have long provided. As a result of the payments, child poverty fell to nearly half its rate before the cash payments began.

But reducing child poverty, apparently, does not make great campaign fodder. The payments were modestly popular, but much less so than empowering Medicare to negotiate cheaper prescription drugs ― another, more recent Democratic policy achievement that has been the centerpiece of plenty of campaign ads.

And the payments stopped at the end of 2021 after Democrats couldn’t get Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to agree to an extension. They could argue that electing Democrats would bring the payments back, but many Democrats have decided that it’s simpler to argue that electing Republicans could result in cuts to Social Security, since a handful of GOP lawmakers have suggested they’d like to trim those retirement benefits.

Another factor might be that Democrats are wary of touting any of the party’s domestic policy accomplishments given Biden’s unpopularity and voters’ dissatisfaction with inflation.

More than half of likely voters see “the economy and inflation” as their top concern when deciding whom to vote for, according to a poll CNN commissioned in late October. Half of those same voters said they trust Republicans more than Democrats to solve their top concern.

In some of their advertisements, Republicans have also seized on the fact that stimulus payments went to convicted felons. (Republicans have not bothered to mention that they, too, supported two rounds of stimulus checks that did not exclude felons.)

It’s possible that Republicans could have also depicted the expanded child tax credit as a welfare handout to undeserving families. They already criticized the short-lived benefit for lacking a work requirement for eligibility.

Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, objected to extending the credit on the grounds that it would encourage welfare dependence. He told his Democratic colleagues last year that he fears recipients of the additional cash would spend the money on drugs rather than on family necessities.

Sen. Michael Bennet answers questions from reporters after he dropped off his ballot at Washington Park in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday.
Sen. Michael Bennet answers questions from reporters after he dropped off his ballot at Washington Park in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is the Senate’s chief champion of the expanded Child Tax Credit, is perhaps the one Democrat who has made the policy a central part of his campaign.

Bennet touted his work getting the expanded tax credit into the American Rescue Plan Act in an April 2021 TV ad that still does not mention the policy by name.

Bennet is “getting answers: putting $3,000 in the pockets of Colorado families, cutting child poverty nearly in half, and making sure our economy works for all of us,” the narrator in the ad says.

Addressing a crowd of Democratic supporters in Pueblo on Sunday, Bennet said that he mounted his short-lived campaign for president in 2019 in order to pass the legislation, and was proud of its inclusion in Biden’s COVID-19 economic rescue package.

“We demonstrated that we don’t have to accept this level of childhood poverty as a permanent state of our economy or a permanent state of our democracy,” he declared. “And I can tell you, the main reason I want to go back there is to make that permanent. That’s what we have to do.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, is not up for reelection this year. But in his efforts to campaign for the party to maintain its hold of the House and Senate, Sanders has emphasized the expanded child tax credit.

In an October op-ed in The Guardian, Sanders called for Democrats to campaign on their economic policy achievements, including the increased child tax credit. “Whether it is extending the $300 a month child tax credit that expired in December that slashed the child poverty rate by over 40%, or increasing social security benefits, or expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision or making childcare affordable, the Democrats must stand with the working class of this country and expose the Republicans for the phonies that they are,” he wrote.

Bennet and many other Democrats have also said they’ll try to bring back the child tax credit by leveraging their support for a host of expiring business tax cuts during the lame duck session of Congress, before newly-elected lawmakers are sworn in. It remains unclear how they would get Manchin or any Republicans on board with that strategy, however.

Bennet believes that the expiration of the expanded child tax credit after less than a year is a key reason why Democrats are reluctant to run on it.

“There’s a conventional wisdom that it’s a complicated situation because it was here and then went away,” he told HuffPost in an interview after his event in Pueblo. “And that’s a hard thing. It’s hard to explain to people how that happened.”

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