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Sen. Joe Manchin leaves the U.S. Capitol

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) enters his car after participating in a vote at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 14, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Means Testing Will Ruin the Expanded Child Tax Credit

Restrictive means tests keep Americans poor, sick, hungry, and homeless. It's time to debunk the tired old lies they're based on.

Lawmakers are scrambling to revive the Child Tax Credit after Senator Joe Manchin effectively killed it along with the Build Back Better Act.

Through immoral and unsound economic sophistries, Manchin has now recruited more of his Congressional colleagues to support a dangerous “compromise”: including “means testing” and work requirements to limit the credit. After months of broken promises, we don’t have faith that Manchin will support this bill even with his compromises. But we do know that this one will come on the backs of the poor.

Many [arguments in favor of means testing] are rooted in the mistaken belief that people are poor due to their own failings—and then attach racist, gendered, and elitist stereotypes about the poor to justify such restrictions.

“Means tests” restrict the availability of public assistance based on income. They’re often burdensome requirements that make people “prove” they’re poor enough to deserve help. These restrictive tests currently limit access to Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, and more.

They’re often established using the poverty line. But since the official poverty line is far too low, many of these means tests not only underestimate who needs these programs, but also how much they need. They shift the burden to potential beneficiaries and away from our elected officials, who are constitutionally mandated to provide for the general welfare.

Several examples show the damage of this approach.

Before the pandemic, over 90 percent of the 42 million people who were receiving food stamps weren’t receiving enough to have a healthy diet. An August 2021 expansion of the program seemed to recognize this, raising average benefits by about $1.19 per person, per day. However, even after this expansion, the benefits still did not cover the average costs of a meal in one out of five U.S. counties.

Likewise, before Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, millions of people who required low-cost or free health care were excluded from accessing the program. After the ACA raised the eligibility threshold, Medicaid enrollment increased by one-third in states that expanded the program.

During the pandemic, another 10 million people enrolled in Medicaid. It now covers over 80 million people, which is as much a reflection of the great need for health care as it is of the restrictions imposed by means testing.

Tired Old Stereotypes

Arguments in favor of means testing often go hand-in-hand with arguments in favor of work requirements or other restrictions to welfare programs.

Many are rooted in the mistaken belief that people are poor due to their own failings—and then attach racist, gendered, and elitist stereotypes about the poor to justify such restrictions. President Bill Clinton relied on these arguments to pass welfare reform in 1996, which introduced a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, imposed strict work requirements, and made it harder for poor mothers to earn a college degree.

In the first five years after welfare reform, welfare rolls dropped from 12.2 million in 1996 to 5.3 million in 2001. This was widely celebrated as a success. But in 2014, a record 47 million Americans—nearly 1 in 6—lived below the poverty line. Another 95-100 million lived right above it, often dropping below that threshold over the course of a year. While the number of people receiving welfare had decreased, poverty and economic insecurity were a widespread and common condition.

Today, we are now seeing a revival of these arguments.

The resurgence of tired old stereotypes and punitive policy prescriptions comes in response to the widespread success of the expanded Child Tax Credit. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, Child Tax Credit benefits were increased, payments went out monthly instead of as a yearly tax credit, and the program was expanded to include families who had not been to access it before because they were too poor to pay taxes. It still included a “means test” — but only at a generous upper bound. The lower bound was removed.

As a result, in 2021, over 27 million households who were not eligible for this benefit before began receiving monthly payments, most of which were used to meet basic needs: food, clothing, water, heat, housing and electricity. These payments reduced racial inequities, with poor Black and Latino households experiencing real reductions in their levels of poverty. In total, some 61 million children and 36 million households received the payments.

The resurgence of tired old stereotypes and punitive policy prescriptions comes in response to the widespread success of the expanded Child Tax Credit.

Although the Child Tax Credit lifted nearly 4 million children above the poverty line—and made it a little bit easier for tens of millions of people to live through a continuing pandemic and economic downturn—Manchin says he will only support it if he can fundamentally change what worked about it in 2021.

Organizing for the Truth

Manchin and his colleagues want to keep us in the fiction that was systemized through welfare reform: that poverty is only a marginal issue, facing a few million people, who need a little bit of help to get back on their feet again.

They want to keep telling us the lie that welfare programs are bad for us, but good for the rich (remember, a tax cut or a subsidy is also welfare). They want to tell us that we don’t need help because we can work, even though they won’t make sure we have safe jobs, living wages, or paid leave. And they want to make sure we don’t know that continuing the Child Tax Credit expansion, at $20 billion, would cost less than the $25 billion Congress awarded the Pentagon above what military leaders even asked for—raising the total figure to some $778 billion.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “When we go into action and confront our adversaries, we must be as armed with knowledge as they. Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.”

The Poor People’s Campaign—the 140 million poor and low-income people in this country and our moral allies—see through these clever sophistries.

We are going into action as we organize a Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly and March on Washington on June 18, 2022. And we are armed with knowledge. We will not compromise on our needs, because we know what is possible.

Anything less than everything we need isn’t enough.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His books include: "The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear" (2016), "Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing" (2018) and "We Are Called to Be a Movement" (2020). Follow him on Twitter @RevDrBarber.

Liz Theoharis

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. She is the author of "Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor" (2017).

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