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Rep. James Clyburn speaks to reporters

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) speaks to reporters on January 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Clyburn Asks: Who Would Oppose Means-Testing Child Tax Credit? Answer: Lots of People

"There is literally not a single thing that the means-tested approach is better at than the universal approach," said one policy expert.

Jake Johnson

Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, said Thursday that he would be willing to support Sen. Joe Manchin's proposal to further restrict eligibility for the expanded child tax credit, a program that expired last month thanks in large part to the West Virginia senator's opposition.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that during negotiations over Democrats' stalled Build Back Better package, "Manchin made it very clear that he had a problem... not with the child tax credit per se, but he wanted to see it means tested."

"Means testing equals more bureaucracy, red tape, and waste."

"I'm not opposed to that," Clyburn said. "Who would oppose that? So, I would like to see him come forward with a bill for the child tax credit that's means tested. I think it would pass."

In fact, many—including dozens of Clyburn's fellow House Democrats—have voiced opposition to Manchin's demand for a lower income cut-off for the program, which lawmakers and the Biden White House are aiming to revive in some form.

In October, 27 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) making the case for universal programs and warning against "complicated methods of means testing that the wealthy and powerful will use to divide us with false narratives about 'makers' and 'takers.'"

Manchin himself has made use of such pernicious narratives, telling colleagues behind closed doors that he believes some parents used the boosted child tax credit payments to buy drugs. Survey data shows parents largely used the monthly checks—up to $300 per child under the age of six and $250 per child between the ages of six and 17—for food and other necessities.

During an appearance on a West Virginia radio show on Thursday, Manchin reiterated his view that any child tax credit expansion Democrats pursue in the future must be "targeted" toward those who "make $75,000 or less" per year. According to Axios, Manchin had previously told the White House that "the child tax credit must include a firm work requirement and family income cap in the $60,000 range."

The expired, poverty-reducing program was already means tested, limiting eligibility to married couples who earned $150,000 or less annually and single parents who earned $75,000 or less.

After the boosted version lapsed at the end of 2021, the child tax credit reverted to its earlier form, which provides annual lump-sum payments but excludes the poorest families.

As Vox's Li Zhou wrote in October, Manchin's mean-testing push "overlooks a few problems," including that "means-tested benefits can actually be more expensive to provide, harder to sell politically, and less effective than universal social programs, and they can place both a social stigma and discouraging bureaucratic requirements on Americans in need."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) similarly argued at the time that "means testing equals more bureaucracy, red tape, and waste."

"That's why programs where means testing gets implemented are less popular, not more popular," she added. "It's also why many people who are eligible for means-tested programs still don't get healthcare or help at all—it's too hard."

As Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project and a trenchant critic of means testing, put it recently, "There is literally not a single thing that the means-tested approach is better at than the universal approach."

"When understood properly, the means-tested approach costs the exact same amount of money and has a massive list of negatives that the universal approach does not," Bruenig wrote last month. "It is a completely indefensible approach to benefit design."

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