What about the kids?
Despite its historic investments, the Manchin-Schumer deal represents a missed opportunity for Congress to enhance the economic well-being of millions of American children.
Senate Democrats have an opportunity to head into their monthlong recess riding the momentum that comes with passing a piece of legislation comprised of several key priorities.
The Inflation Reduction Act — introduced by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic Leader from New York after several days of clandestine negotiations — would make historic investments in climate justice, extend a series of Affordable Care Act tax credits beyond President Joe Biden’s first term in office, empower Medicare to negotiate prices on a handful of expensive prescription drugs for seniors and close loopholes so wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share in taxes.
If passed, the IRA would be the latest feather for President Biden in a cap that also includes a recently passed competitiveness bill that invests billions into the US semiconductor industry to make consumer electronics cheaper plus a veterans health care bill that’s expected to pass this week and is of personal importance since he’s the father of a late veteran. Add this to the almost-$2-trillion COVID rescue plan, the $1.2-plus-trillion infrastructure law, a new gun safety law, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, postal reform and the confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court (along with over 70 more lower-court judges), the president has a list of achievements that rivals most of his predecessors at this point in their terms.
And unlike other priorities like voting rights, police accountability and immigration reform, Senate rules prevent Republicans from blocking the IRA from passage if all 50 Democrats stick together.
But the IRA is a fraction of the sweeping Build Back Better Act that passed the House late last year before Manchin went on Fox News to announce his opposition to it rendering it dead on arrival.
Chief among the most popular provisions were a series of economic investments in child care, universal pre-K and the expanded Child Tax Credit, which provided monthly automatic direct deposits of $250 or $300 per child for six months last year through the American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law in March 2021.
“[The Child Tax Credit] represented an unprecedented direct cash intervention and an unprecedented benefit for family. We saw the child poverty rate fall by at least 30 percent during the months that the program was in place,” Zach Tilly, policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund, said to Supercreator. “And we know from qualitative data that that benefit was extremely effective at relieving household stress, helping families meet their basic needs to reduce food insecurity, helping families have more flexibility to invest in things like education and after-school programs and child care.”
As I reported last December, Biden initially proposed funding the CTC through 2025 with the ultimate goal of making it permanent. But doing so would have cost more than Manchin was willing to invest so congressional Democrats proposed a one-year extension to keep the provision in Build Back Better. (Manchin was still a no to the one-year extension.)
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah in 2021 introduced a child allowance proposal that provided $350 per month for children under age six and $250 per month for ages six through 17 in households earning under a certain threshold. But a spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told Supercreator in January that Romney’s proposal excludes other critical supports that families rely on.
“Child poverty costs our country more than $1 trillion a year in the form of more hospital visits, lower earnings and higher crime. That is why investing in our kids is one of the best investments we can make as a country,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said in a statement to Supercreator. “The expanded Child Tax Credit made an enormous difference in the lives of kids and families across the country and I’m working to extend it as soon as possible.”
A White House spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the administration’s work to extend the expanded CTC or the impact of the six-month extension that was passed in the ARP.
Spokespeople for Sen. Manchin and Leader Schumer’s offices did not respond to a request for comment on their message to voters who are excited about the provisions in the reconciliation package Senate Democrats are considering this week but disappointed the bill excludes some of the child care policies that were in the original Build Back Better proposal.
While Tilly at the CDF believes extending the Child Tax Credit is the most important action the federal government can take to support the economic well-being of children and families, he said that the entire child care ecosystem requires deep investment to ensure child care providers receive the pay they deserve and stem the tide of people leaving those jobs because they’re inadequately compensated for their work.
There’s also the issue of housing, which is another historically underinvested area that puts children and families at risk.
“Because we know that families with children are most likely to face serious cost burdens with respect to their housing, they’re disproportionately likely to face eviction and disproportionate risk of experiencing homelessness as a result of losing their housing,” Tilly said.
It’s hard to create or learn when you’re hungry, so nutrition is another area of economic opportunity for federal intervention.
Tilly said child advocacy groups like the CDF are pushing toward a world where there are universal free school meals for kids, including breakfast, lunch and after-school programs. The ARP included waivers for nutrition support that were partially extended. Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who sponsored the legislation, last week introduced a bill that would create an advisory council on unpaid meal debt. The White House next month will also host a conference on food, nutrition and health to accelerate the administration’s progress on its goal of ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity in the US by 2030.
What’s often missing in the mainstream conversation on child economic well-being is a discussion on how to broaden federal policy beyond just building income to building wealth.
Baby bonds, a government policy that would create an account for every kid and set up federal deposits during childhood based on family income that would be available for a prescribed set of possible expenses during adulthood, is an idea that’s attracting more attention in Congress.
Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey last year reintroduced the American Opportunity Accounts Act, a baby bonds bill that would start with $1,000 at birth, with additional deposits of up to $2,000 each year, depending on household income. The funds would then sit in an interest-bearing account, which can be accessed by account holders at the age of 18 for allowable uses like buying a home, paying for educational expenses or starting a business. (The bill earned the support of 15 senators, including Leader Schumer.)
“For Black, brown, low-income and other marginalized communities without generational wealth, inequity begins at birth — and our policies and budgets deepen those inequities,” Rep. Pressley said in a statement to Supercreator. “With baby bonds, we can reduce the racial wealth gap and create opportunities for every child to pursue education, purchase a home and build wealth for generations to come.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Booker’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Tilly told Supercreator that sustained federal investments enable families to focus less on the pressing needs of meeting necessities and spend time together to nurture the burgeoning creativity of the young people in their lives.
“I think that removing some family stress and providing additional resources goes a long way toward nurturing creativity and just allowing [youth] a little more space in their lives for the kinds of things that foster creativity down the line.”