Child Tax Credit Failure Reaffirms Young People’s Pessimism About Government

Students, nearly 50% of whom qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, take in grim message as Congress kills measure that cut child poverty in half.

Parents and caregivers with the Economic Security Project gather outside the White House to advocate for the Child Tax Credit in advance of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on September 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

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Everyone’s worried about . Schools are reporting widespread mental health struggles in their post-pandemic classrooms. 

“Perhaps it’s the cell phones?” we wonder. “And the TikTok?” 

Sure, screens — and how kids engage with them — are part of this story. And yet, and especially, America tolerates levels of child poverty compared to peer nations. because of their families’ low incomes. And yet, as has become custom, Congress recently missed a bipartisan opportunity to do something about this shameful, persistent American problem. 

To explain this latest congressional stumble, we need some history. In 2021, the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan cut U.S. child poverty rates by significantly expanding the . Critically, the expanded credit was administered in , giving families a steady stream of new resources instead of a once-annually infusion at tax time. As Dr. Shantel Meek and I put it in , “[M]easured against its goal, the expansion of the child tax credit is one of the great policy successes in recent memory. Few other big federal ideas have so suddenly achieved precisely what they intended.” 

But the measure expired after one year, and to reinstate it have floundered in Congress. 

Then, this year, a bipartisan group of House representatives drafted a giving progressives a partial reinstatement of the expanded credit in return for a handful of corporate tax breaks prized by conservatives. The bill passed with in the House, but — at least partly because of conservative concerns that it might help President Biden in an election year. “I think passing a tax bill that makes the president look good — may allow checks before the election — means that he can be reelected and then we won’t extend the 2017 tax cuts,” . 

Whatever else you think is causing young Americans’ pessimism these days, it pales in comparison with the impact of this sort of cynicism. Put aside the hand wringing about culture wars and polarization and “woke” indoctrination embedded into K–12 history curricula. U.S. kids don’t distrust Congress because their schools tell them an honest account of America’s complicated past. They Congress because, when confronted with a tested policy solution to that affects their lives, elected representatives dither and find politically expedient excuses. 

Make no mistake: the case for providing cash support for families with young children is empirically airtight. Researchers have known since at least that families’ socioeconomic resources significantly shape children’s educational performance and outcomes. that increases in family income produce better developmental, academic and life outcomes for children. As a policy matter, regular cash transfers to families like the Biden Administration’s expanded child tax credit —known as “child allowances” — a to . 

At this point in the waves of evidence, conservatives sometimes argue that, sure, perhaps there’s a case for investing more funding in low-income families, but only if we apply conditions and require that it be spent on particular things. Won’t families “waste” new resources unproductively? But this, too, is cynical and baseless political posturing: analysis showed that families .

And yet, here we are, stuck. Legislative failures like these are the operational definition of a failing democracy. When democracies struggle to do simple things that we know would improve citizens’ — especially children’s — lives, they’re undermining their main institutional selling point. If representative government cannot accurately represent the public’s interest by identifying and addressing its problems, why bother with the messiness of organizing our political lives this way?
U.S. kids are not alright. But it’s not just because they’re living in an information sphere increasingly shaped by technology. Without a shift to a more pragmatic approach to these problems, that trust will only continue dropping — however well legislative sclerosis serves conservatives’ short-term political needs.

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