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Biden brings back welfare

The fight over welfare is back. The "COVID relief" bill creates a new $100 billion program that will send no-strings monthly checks to parents — whether or not they ever work. But it does this for only a year.

That's the first of several clever ways Democrats disguised the impact of the program. It let them claim that the checks were temporary pandemic aid. By the time Democrats move to make it permanent – which they will – they hope constituents will be accustomed to getting the monthly cash.

The second trick was billing the plan as an "expanded child tax credit," leading most people to think that it's just a generous version of the existing credit, which refunds money only to people who pay taxes or earn some income. That's not what the new version does. Cash goes to everyone with a child, income or not. If they don't owe taxes, the money's sent to them directly. Have a kid, get a check. Just like the old, hated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program. Biden sends parents $300 a month for every child under six and $250 for each older child.

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Yes, this time checks go to middle class parents as well as poor parents — payments won't start to phase out until an individual makes $75,000 a year. That's one reason the plan is so expensive. But it's still welfare — checks will still subsidize families without breadwinners. 

That was the biggest worry about AFDC, a New Deal program originally intended to help widows. It wound up sending cash to single moms who'd never married, who did little formal work themselves (though many took jobs on the side without telling authorities) and who often wound up staying on welfare a long time. Policy types fretted about "underclass" neighborhoods — areas that featured a lot of broken families and high school dropouts and few male jobholders. In 1992, Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it" as a way to "break the culture of poverty and dependence." 

When AFDC did end in 1996 – replaced with a time-limited program that (in theory) required work – poor single moms went to work in historic numbers. Welfare rolls fell by half. By 2006, the number of “underclass” areas had sharply declined. To an inspiring degree, the now-working moms stuck with it, through the brutal downs and ups of the 2000-2016 economy. By 2019, child poverty was at record lows among all races.

For a new generation of anti-poverty wonks, though, Clinton's achievement was another neoliberal scam. It didn't eliminate the welfare caseworker bureaucracy. And hadn't the number of people living on less than 50 percent of a poverty-line income increased? (Not really, according to many measures.) Work, and preserving a culture of work, seemed less important — robots might render work obsolete anyway. It was money that mattered.

Liberals were joined by big-thinking conservatives searching for a way their party might champion the neglected working class — conservatives who often also feared declining U.S. birth rates. Maybe you could solve both problems by showering those who have kids with checks?

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That was the third factor greasing the skids for Biden's welfare plan — help from Republicans such as Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyAdvocacy groups pushing Biden to cancel student debt for disabled 15 Senate Republicans pledge to oppose lifting earmark ban The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines MORE, who proposed his own child-check scheme.

Won't sending all this cash reverse the post-'96 dynamic, as low-earning parents decide to live off the checks rather than slog it out in what are often lousy jobs? It probably will. Child-check supporters such as economist Paul Krugman pretend that the problem with welfare wasn't that it paid you to stay at home but rather that when you did try to earn some income, you lost some of your benefits — a problem Biden's scheme avoids. But surely the biggest disincentive to going to work isn't that the "phase out" of benefits will reduce your income by 20 percent. It's that you have to go to work.

Even Matthew Yglesias, a prominent "child credit" proponent, says we "shouldn’t discount the idea that it would be bad for kids to grow up in whole communities where nobody is doing formal work." He argues that Biden's child aid isn't big enough to have this effect but adds that if the benefit were $10,000 a year “then maybe it would."

In many cases, though, the Biden benefits will be over $10,000. A mother with two young children would get $7,200 a year — plus she'd qualify for about $6,400 in SNAP food stamps, for a total of $13,600. Plus Medicaid. That's enough to barely survive on, without working, in many low-cost states. If you throw in off-the-books cash, it might be enough even in New York.

The worry isn't that two-worker families will become one-worker families. The worry is that families will go from one worker to zero workers. We’ll have millions of kids growing up fatherless in areas where the mainstream world of employment is a foreign country, for generation after generation. That doesn't lead anywhere good.

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Child-credit wonks imagine that a kind of solidarity results if nearly everyone receives checks. “We're all on this dole together.” Unity! But if the checks support an isolated "underclass" — well, there is nothing more divisive than an underclass. Whole areas of cities become places to be avoided. The middle class flees public schools and insulates itself in the suburbs with zoning rules or window-bars. 

The best unifying foundation for Americans remains work. When people leave welfare for work, even in low-end jobs, they meet more people and people meet them. They don't necessarily find their calling, though some do. They find their fellow Americans. A check can't do that.

You'd think the Biden "child check" plan would have been a big story, covered in every article as the COVID-19 bill was being debated. You would be wrong. That's the fourth prong of the Democrats' ingenious strategy — the press downplayed the plan, at least until passage was virtually assured. It's hard to believe this was accidental. Why rile up readers who have previously voted to oppose welfare and support work?

Maybe they should call it stealth-fare.

Mickey Kaus, author of "End of Equality," writes Kausfiles. Follow him on Twitter @KausMickey.