We all know that the lower-income half of the American public (give or take) has been taking it on the chin for more than four decades. However, bad as it is, it could be much worse. Of the 43-plus million people currently living in poverty, more than double that number would be poor if we lacked the public policies we currently have—Social Security, SNAP (Food Stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, housing vouchers, and SSI, and more. They are crucial. Existing low-wage jobs—along with those jobs that have disappeared altogether—have both shaped our economy and devastated the lives of tens of millions. But the policies we have enacted have at least softened the blow. We need to emphasize and re-emphasize that these policies are effective and making a big difference. The right’s oft-repeated monotone that everything failed is simply wrong, and repeating it over and over doesn’t make it right.
Nonetheless, we’re still in deep trouble fundamentally because we live in a low-wage nation.
Hillary Clinton has made a sensible proposal to improve on the existing Child Tax Credit (CTC) and extend new assistance to working but struggling parents, from the poorest of the poor to the middle class. The CTC dates back to 1997 and has gradually been expanded over the years. Along with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), it has already helped keep millions of low-wage workers out of poverty and mitigate the squeeze on the near poor.
Secretary Clinton proposes to build another well-constructed step in the right direction, concentrating on children under five and helping parents across a wide swath of incomes—from those with very low earnings to those with incomes far above double the poverty line.
The proposal addresses two major, yet quite different problems. One is that more than 100 million people—a rather astonishing third of the nation—have incomes below twice the poverty line, under $40,000 for families of three and less than $50,000 for families of four. Their incomes are strikingly low, and they are often stuck. Upward mobility is close to nonexistent for far too many.
Along with other Clinton tax proposals that would help cover excessive out-of-pocket health costs and the costs of caring for elderly parents and grandparents, her proposed increase to the CTC would raise incomes for low-wage workers who are already experiencing a difficult time. If each of these proposals were enacted, families could receive as much as $7,200 in new subtractions from their taxes—which would have the same effect as an income increase of that amount.
Even more important is the part of the proposal that relates to very low-income families and people hovering around the poverty line. A refundable feature was added to the credit in 2001—meaning that people can receive it even if they owe no taxes. But, because of political compromise in the 2001 legislation, the refundable portion would not begin to kick in until a family earned $10,000, which made the lowest and most needy earners unable to benefit at all from the credit. In 2009, President Obama’s Recovery Act brought that threshold to $3,000, which was an important improvement.
But what Hillary Clinton is proposing would make eligibility begin at the first dollar of earning. In addition, for children under five, the maximum credit would double from $1,000 to $2,000, and the credit would grow at a rate of 45 cents for each dollar. This means that $2000 in earnings would bring a family $900 in tax credit—and the maximum credit of $2,000 for one child under five would be reached at a little over $4,400 of earnings. Under existing law, a family with those earnings would receive only $210. These are astonishingly low incomes, but they exist in our country. The additional $1,790 would make a tremendous difference.
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, in their important book $2.00 a Day, point out that SNAP, alone, requires cash income to accompany it because of their limited liquidity. In any event, SNAP, by itself, provides an income of only about a third of the poverty line, or around $6,500—and there are 7 million people whose full income comes from SNAP—a stunning number. This makes Clinton’s proposal of adding cash income for very low-earning workers particularly significant. Edin and Shaefer also tell us that many people living in such extreme poverty get some earnings from odd jobs and seasonal jobs in the course of a year, so it is entirely realistic to believe that these people would, in fact, qualify for the expanded credit.
Edin and Shaefer’s book was powerful, but additional context can add even more perspective. “Deep poverty,” which is the term for incomes below half the poverty line ($9,500 for a family of three), has doubled over the last 40 years, and now stands at about 15 million people (using the alternative poverty measure which includes both SNAP and the EITC in its calculus of income). Once again, these are stunning numbers.
Secretary Clinton’s proposal will help at that level, too. A half-time minimum wage job would yield an income about $2,000 less than half the poverty line for a family of three. A single mother with such a job, who has a child under five and another who is seven, would get $3,000, which is almost five times what she would receive under the current system, and this would be in addition to the EITC. The sum would nearly double her income.
Of course there is a missing link here. One has to have work, minimal as it might be, to get help from the CTC and the EITC. People without work who do not have a disability are up the creek in most of America. Cash assistance—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—now reaches fewer than 3 million people, less than 1 percent of the population. Because there is no requirement of assistance, many states choose to help almost no one. Wyoming provides TANF to five children out of every 100 poor families, which adds up to 600 people in the entire state. Half the states provide TANF to fewer than 20 children for every 100 poor families. This is a continuing challenge.
That said, the Clinton Child Tax Credit would help 14 million families and raise 1.5 million people out of poverty—including 400,000 children under five. Another 9.4 million people, including 1.9 million children under 5, would be brought closer (up) to the poverty line. This is a serious proposal.
Given this, what are the prospects that Clinton’s proposal could actually come to fruition, as well as her suggestion that she would favor increasing the EITC for workers not raising children and extending it to younger workers?
Hill watchers say that even with a Republican House (although with a more narrow majority), a Clinton presidency and a Democratic Senate will likely move quickly to push an infrastructure plan for the country, to be financed by a mandated repatriation of offshore income earned by American companies. Republicans will demand a “reform” of corporate taxes in return and also press for a more modest infrastructure investment and a smaller bite at repatriation. Because this will be, in part, a tax bill, it would make sense for Democrats, including the new President (should Clinton prevail), to push for the Clinton proposal. These are both policies that have had bipartisan support in the past.
No doubt my crystal ball is far from clear in its vision, but the scenario I have laid out is well within the realm of the possible. What Secretary Clinton has put in play is a sensible and practicable initiative that would mean a great deal to millions of the most vulnerable Americans.