The Child Tax Credit Was a Little Too Subtle

The Child Tax Credit Was a Little Too Subtle

Why doesn’t anyone care about the expanded child tax credit? A $100 billion policy—effective, important, elegantly designed, competently managed, and noncontroversial—is gone, at least for now. And nobody, save for a few politicians and wonks, seems to have noticed or to care.  

[Annie Lowrey: Cash for kids comes to the United States]

The expanded child tax credit (CTC) provided no-strings-attached cash payments to 39 million families in 2021 and 2022, lifting millions of kids over the poverty line. But Democrats have failed to get a renewal of the program into the $1.7 trillion spending bill making its way through Congress, just as they failed to get it into the Inflation Reduction Act they passed earlier this year. As a general point, the CTC has languished in policy obscurity. Did Democrats crow about it in their recent campaign ads? No. Did it sway many swing voters in the midterms? No. Have large protests pushed for the policy’s reinstatement? No. Many studies suggest, as does common sense, that handing out all that money should have helped Democrats at the polls. Somehow, it did not.

Many political stories end up being much ado about nothing. But the quiet demise of the CTC is one of the most baffling things I have witnessed in American politics: no ado about so, so much. How the policy failed to create its own constituency is the $100 billion question, of interest to the Democratic politicians hoping to reinstate it as well as to experts designing new social programs in the future. Politicians, the CTC shows, have enormous capacity to improve citizens’ lives. But don’t expect those citizens to thank them at the polls for doing so.

The expanded CTC was part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, passed in the spring of 2021. The policy had three main features. First, it beefed up an existing tax credit paid to the parents of dependent children. Under the new provision, families got $3,600 a year for each kid under 5 and $3,000 for each kid ages 5 to 18. Second, it paid out that money in installments; parents received a couple hundred bucks per kid each month from July to December and a final, larger check this spring. Third, it made the credit fully refundable, meaning that families that did not owe any federal income tax still got the full amount.

[David Frum: A rescue package for Joe Biden]

In practical terms: Cash suddenly started showing up in tens of millions of bank accounts. The impact was enormous and instantaneous. The transfers, a kind of Social Security for kids, drove child poverty down to its lowest-ever level. The rate of food insecurity in recipient households fell by more than 25 percent. Those families were less reliant on friends and family for help, experienced fewer medical hardships, and were more on top of their utility bills. Studies showed that the recipients used the money for essentials—food, gas, rent, clothes, day care—and that the transfers did not lead parents to reduce their work hours or quit working.

The families getting the money loved it, even if they were somewhat bewildered by it. Carlos Atkins, a Detroit lawn-care and sanitation worker who is the single father of a 4-year-old boy, told me he spent the cash on tuition, clothing, and rent. The coronavirus pandemic was hard on the family, Atkins told me: His income dropped from $15 an hour to $12 in the early months of the pandemic, and he started getting paid every other week instead of every week. On top of that, he was trying to figure out how to teach and entertain his toddler, whose early-childhood center had shut down. And he ended up with a month-long case of COVID.

“It was mentally exhausting,” Atkins told me. “No parent wants to struggle taking care of their child.” He had been worrying about where the family’s next meal would come from when he started getting the CTC payments. “I don’t get government assistance. Everything I do is out of pocket,” Atkins said, noting that he had been working since he was 15 years old. “But for those months, it really helped. It really helped knowing we had that source of income.”

The program’s political appeal extended beyond its recipients. A review of 31 polls found that twice as many likely voters supported the CTC as opposed it. And it never generated much partisan heat, especially in comparison with the Affordable Care Act or the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. A plurality, if not a majority, of Republicans supported the CTC, surveys suggested, and Republican Congress members largely left it alone.

Because cash transfers tend to be popular among voters, they commonly generate electoral benefits for incumbent parties. Indeed, there’s a voluminous body of research on exactly these kinds of initiatives: Beginning in the 1990s, dozens of middle-income countries established family allowances, reducing their rates of child poverty and boosting the fortunes of the parties that passed them. Research shows that public spending typically wins voters’ gratitude in the United States too.

And once voters have a benefit, politicians can’t easily cut it or take it away. The CTC’s boosters on the Hill settled for a one-year trial in the American Rescue Plan because it was the best they could do. “That was the only way we could get 51 votes,” Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado told me. “I obviously deeply regret that.” But many hoped that one year would be enough to generate a groundswell of support for the policy, which Democrats could renew later. Some “supporters of the CTC, they argued this would be transformational,” Ethan Winter, a senior analyst at the progressive polling firm Data for Progress, told me. “They thought, Once people get that first check, everyone’s mind will be changed. You’ll never take it back.”

He added: “That’s not exactly how politics works.”

So how does it work? How did Democrats manage to shower voters with $100 billion only for those same voters to seemingly forget about the policy later? Political scientists and pollsters I spoke with pointed to four overlapping factors.

Complexity and confusion

On some level, the expanded CTC was a simple policy: Have kid, get cash. On another, it was an inordinately confusing one. Voters received monthly advances on an extended but preexisting tax credit, one made fully refundable, as if anyone without a public-policy Ph.D. could be expected to understand what that meant. Indeed, the CTC was a “submerged” benefit, to use the terminology of the Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler: a bit of tax-code esoterica rather than a direct-spending program. Even the name was wonky and unmemorable: the expanded CTC, not, say, stimmies.

“People didn’t understand it,” Pamela Herd, a sociologist at Georgetown University, told me. “A tax credit—it just doesn’t feel like a benefit in the same way that getting your Social Security check does. It doesn’t register with people in the same way, and that has a real impact on support for the program.”

The context in which the program passed into law and the context in which its benefits went out seem to have amplified the confusion. The extended CTC was just one plank of the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan—one of 14, as listed on the White House’s own fact sheet. Many voters had never heard of it when money started flowing into their bank accounts. “The fact that Democrats were attempting to do so much at the same time—it created some real messaging problems,” Winter of Data for Progress told me.

Moreover, nearly every family getting the CTC was also getting stimulus checks. Many were also receiving extended unemployment-insurance payments, and some were also getting cash from the Treasury Department to help float their small businesses. People were unclear what was what, and many figured that everything was some form of pandemic aid. “I remember getting a letter from the government saying if you qualify for the stimulus, you might get this thing to help families,” Atkins told me. “That’s how I found out about it. At the time, I was under the impression that the government was using this program to replace the stimulus checks.”

Bennet, of Colorado, expressed his “frustration” over the muddled messaging and the “agony” of watching the policy lapse. “I’m not sure it was a fair test,” he said. The policy became associated with a COVID crisis that many Americans wanted to move past. The CTC, Bennet said, “wasn’t there for long enough for people to see it as a more permanent effort to relieve stress.”

Lack of permanence

Indeed, even if Democratic politicians saw the CTC as a trial run for a grand new social policy, voters saw it as temporary stimulus. It showed up out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly.

The CTC had no time to become a line item in family budgets or change people’s mind about having another kid. It had no time to become something that families counted on or built their lives around. It had no time to develop feedback—the term that political scientists use for the way policies change voters’ politics.

“It was always my fear that we had to have it permanently at the outset, or do it for five years,” Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who has pushed for an expanded CTC for nearly two decades and was instrumental in getting it into the American Rescue Plan, told me. “You have to be realistic about thinking about the beneficiaries of the child tax credit: working families,” she added. “For people to suddenly become political activists? Christ, they’re just surviving.”

Plus, for a program carrying a $100 billion price tag, the CTC had surprisingly little lobbying muscle or organized support behind it. “It’s a very think-tanky kind of proposal,” Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University, told me. “That was its origin in the policy debate.”


That is not to say that the policy did not have powerful allies on the Hill—including DeLauro and Bennet. Yet by the time the CTC money hit, voters were not primarily suffering from having too little cash on hand, as they had been in the Barack Obama years. They were alarmed because their rent was unaffordable and the prices of food and gas were spiraling out of control.

The Atlantic Daily: A guide to inflation

Democrats never quite had an answer for what to do about that. They argued that inflation was temporary and not their fault; they blamed it on corporate greed or on Vladimir Putin; they portrayed it as a bummer for the Federal Reserve to deal with; in many cases, they tried just not talking about it at all. Either way, anxiety over rising prices dampened discussion of the Democrats’ stimulus and COVID-relief efforts, given that government largesse was responsible for stoking some of the excess inflation in the first place.

During the midterms, Democratic advertisements rarely mentioned the program by name. Thus, the party chose not to remind voters of what it had passed, or the good it did for the 4 million children it, at least for a time, brought above the poverty line.  


Inflation was voters’ primary economic concern in the midterm. But it wasn’t their only concern. Voters cited democratic backsliding and the Supreme Court revoking the constitutional right to abortion as issues motivating them to get to the polls; for their part, Republican elected officials kept up their assault on LGBTQ rights, though voters did not seem to reward them for it.

Since the 1960s, surveys have shown voters in wealthy countries shifting toward postmaterialism—that is, from “giving top priority to physical sustenance and safety” to prioritizing “belonging, self-expression and the quality of life," in the words of the political scientist Ronald Inglehart. Compared with their counterparts in the 1950s, when families were poorer and the horrors of World War II were a recent memory, voters today have more latitude to be concerned about issues related to culture and identity. But postmaterialism poses a challenge to left-of-center parties counting on redistributive bread-and-butter policies to win over swing voters. In a postmaterialist political world, Democrats might be able to hand out $100 billion to voters shortly before an election and shift not a single vote.  

Some political scientists told me that, even though American voters have a strong history of rewarding politicians who use government policy to materially improve their constituents’ lives, voters are sensitive to how programs are structured and whom they help. Indeed, transfer programs are politically divisive in the United States in a way that they aren’t in our peer countries, due largely to America’s racial heterogeneity and persistent anti-Black racism.

“People are very skeptical of benefits that are means-tested and are focused on the poor,” Andrea Campbell, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. That skepticism takes on a strong racial valence: White voters deride programs—most notably Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the program usually described as “welfare”—that they view as handouts to Black families and support programs, such as Social Security, that they associate with white workers. Some features of the CTC could win broad support; it was structured as a tax credit, for example, and was near universal among families with children. Yet it was aimed directly at the eradication of child poverty and had its strongest effects in Black communities.

Voters came away from the CTC with a hazy but positive view, surveys conducted this year show. Campbell shared with me unpublished data she had collected indicating that voters might not be so sanguine in the future. The policy is becoming “racialized,” she told me, like “cash welfare.” She added: “I think it will end up being part of this discourse about how having a family is a choice. If you can’t afford it, why did you do it?”

But that has not happened yet, and DeLauro told me she regretted that the party did not have a “singular message or narrative on the value of the child tax credit.” It should be the “flagship policy of our party,” she added. So how should CTC supporters talk in a way that will make voters listen and like what they’re hearing? Recently, a consortium of progressive groups worked on something called the Winning Jobs Narrative Project, which polled more than 110,000 Americans and conducted interviews with 3,000 of them to better understand which political messages succeed.

It found that describing the CTC as effective at ending child poverty reduced support for it; people thought of it as welfare. But describing it as a policy to help working families with child-care costs bolstered support. People liked it when researchers described it as not a handout or an anti-poverty measure, but infrastructure for working folks.

That might seem like a weird way to describe the expanded CTC, but it has the benefit of being true. The best reason to support the CTC is its transformational effects on America’s most vulnerable and most important citizens: its children. The best way to advocate for the policy might be to focus on the good it could do their parents. Like Carlos Atkins. He told me that getting the CTC had prompted him to improve his budgeting. He’s now working at a company that provides resources for homeschooling and setting up his own lawn-care business. It’s all for his son, he told me, his “everything,” his “pride and joy.”

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