MARCH 11, 2021
Meyerson on TAP
How to Help the Poor and Still Win Elections
This administration declares unconditional war on poverty, President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1964, and for a time, it seemed to be winning. Much of the legislation enacted by the Great Society Congress in 1965 did indeed reduce poverty rates substantially, as did the increases to Social Security enacted under Richard Nixon, though those rates began to creep back upward later in the 1970s.

This week, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats renewed that war, with the most substantial anti-poverty legislation the nation has seen since the Johnson days. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act is the single most progressive piece of economic legislation at least since Medicaid’s enactment. According to calculations from the Tax Policy Center (a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution), Americans in the lowest income quintile will see an increase in their after-tax income of 20 percent, those in the second-lowest of 9 percent, those in the middle quintile of 6 percent, those in the fourth-lowest of 4 percent, and those in the wealthiest of 1 percent.

The political brilliance of the bill, then, is precisely that it doesn’t pit the middle class against the poor. To the contrary, it rewards both with a $1,400 payment to individuals and a monthly child allowance of $250 (or more, for children under six) for each child. A Pew poll released earlier this week showed that 63 percent of low-income Republicans support the bill (and by Pew’s calculation, they constitute 25 percent of the party’s membership).

As my colleague Bob Kuttner noted yesterday, Biden (and Schumer and Pelosi) got this bill through Congress on a straight party-line vote, with none of the margin for error that Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed by virtue of having support for their bills from both huge Democratic majorities and liberal Republican senators and representatives. Today’s Democrats enjoy popular vote majorities in presidential elections (they’ve won that seven times in the past eight elections), but if they are to command effective political majorities, they’ll need to model their appeal after that of Biden’s rescue plan, with its just and tangible commitments to both the middle class and the poor.

And if Republicans want to fight against the Democrats’ coming efforts to make the child tax credit permanent, let ’em. That’s the kind of battle that can only help the Dems in 2022 and 2024.

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