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Why Republicans couldn’t kill Biden’s relief bill

UC Berkeley

President Biden and congressional Democrats just passed the largest expansion to the American welfare state in a generation. While the direct stimulus checks have garnered much attention, the American Rescue Plan establishes a guaranteed income for parents, extends wage subsidies to childless adults, and makes ObamaCare cheaper and more accessible for millions of citizens to name just a few of the major provisions. Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion bill despite having a slim majority in Congress that left no room for error.

How were Democrats able to expand welfare programs while holding together such a fragile coalition, especially one that includes more fiscally conservative members like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Tester (D-Mont.) from Republican states?

Our recent analysis of public opinion about people’s attitudes toward government assistance shows that Democrats can gain the support of conservative voters for assistance to the poor through smart policy design. And there is no better example than the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As President Biden and the Democrats were quick to point out, the ARP enjoyed the support of around 70 percent of the American public, including a majority of Republican voters. Democratic senators from purple and red states were able to highlight the bipartisan support for the bill as a rationale for their vote. So, while the vote in Congress was not bipartisan, the public’s support for the bill was.

The Democrats were able to generate conservative support for the bill by designing the most progressive components of the bill as a tax credit rather than a direct check. According to a new CNN poll, the tax credit portions of the bill are the most popular with voters. In particular, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) are targeted toward the working poor, and disproportionately help families of color. The Biden proposal for expanding these two programs is projected to cut the child poverty rate in half. This expansion would provide the most help to Black and Latino families, who fall below the poverty line more often than whites.

It might seem at first glance that Republicans could have used these two programs to target the bill for attack. After all, “welfare” and other federal assistance programs for the poor are often unpopular with the general public, especially with Republican voters. Recipients of government aid are often stereotyped as lazy, undeserving, or simply trying to cheat the system. So, what makes the CTC and EITC different from other welfare type programs?

In our new book, “The Other Side of the Coin,” we find that social assistance for the poor designed as a tax credit appeals to particular groups of voters that are integral to the Republican Party, including fiscal conservatives and citizens with low trust in the federal government. A program designed as tax credit signals to voters suspicious of big government that the recipients are both workers and taxpayers and therefore deserving of federal aid.

To help gauge public opinion toward EITC and CTC, we described these programs to a nationally representative group of adults while randomizing whether the government benefit was being delivered through a direct check or a tax credit. We found that conservatives and low-trust citizens were significantly more likely to support a program when it was presented as a tax credit instead of a program that sent people direct checks.

Subsequent experiments confirmed that many voters see people who receive government aid through the tax code as more deserving of help, all else being equal. We showed survey respondents vignettes that described a person or family receiving federal assistance for childcare or as a wage subsidy, and again the only information that was altered was whether the beneficiary received a tax credit or direct check. Conservatives and low-trust respondents were more likely to identify the tax credit recipient as deserving even though the other details (e.g. description of person, programs costs, etc.) in two vignettes were identical. So, while groups associated with the Republican Party don’t support “welfare,” they will often approve of federal assistance to the working poor and children — often to many of the same people — in the form of tax credits.

In the end, Republican leaders’ inability to criticize an expansion of the welfare state through tax credits meant that Republican voters were left to judge the bill on its merits — and they liked what they saw. This absence of negative messaging around the bill provided political cover to the moderate Democrats to cast the deciding votes and seal the deal on a historic expansion of the American welfare state.

Christopher Faricy is associate professor of political Science at Syracuse University and Christopher Ellis is professor of political science at Bucknell University and co-director of Bucknell Institute for Public Policy. They co-authored “The Other Side of the Coin.”

Tags Joe Biden Joe Manchin

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