Oren Cass Wants Child Benefits for Everyone But the Poor


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When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, she proposed increasing the benefit level of the child tax credit (CTC) by 100 percent, increasing the phase-in rate for the CTC from 15 percent to 45 percent, and starting the CTC phase-in at the first dollar of earnings.

Yesterday, Oren Cass released a proposal that calls for increasing the benefit level of the CTC by 90 percent, increasing the phase-in rate for the CTC from 15 percent to 100 percent, and starting the CTC phase-in at the first dollar of earnings.

If the Cass proposal sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s because it is. It is eerily similar, not just to the 2016 Hillary Clinton proposal, but also to the various Rubio and Lee proposals over the years, the Reformocon proposal, and to the actual history of the child tax credit itself.

The CTC started out as a $500 nonrefundable credit in the late 1990s. In the mid-2000s, Congress doubled the value of it to $1,000 and made it phase in more aggressively. In the mid-2010s, Congress doubled the value of it to $2,000 and made it phase in more aggressively. Now here is Cass saying we should roughly double the value of it and make it phase in more aggressively.

Despite branding himself as a fresh conservative thinker, Cass’s position on child benefits is that the uniquely American approach to them, which is designed to specifically exclude poor children, is exactly right and should just be continued at higher benefit amounts. Meet the new conservatives, same as the old conservatives.

Many years ago, you could pass yourself off as a new brand of conservative by saying that child benefits should exclude slightly fewer poor kids than they currently do. But with Mitt Romney now saying that child benefits should exclude no poor kids, which is how nearly every other developed country does things, Cass’s insistence that starving some kids is important for society just makes him look like a reactionary clown.

What’s so weird about Cass’s position on this is that it seems to be directly at odds with the rest of his pro-working-class brand of conservatism.

In his other writing, Cass spends a lot of time talking about how US trade policies led to the offshoring of good American jobs, which increased unemployment and lowered wages for certain areas of the country and certain strata of the labor market. He also spends a lot of time talking about how high levels of unskilled immigration into the US increased unemployment and lowered wages for certain areas of the country and certain strata of the labor market.

Taken together, his views on globalization and child benefits are that (1) globalization has caused many American families to have low or no earnings and (2) American families with low or no earnings should be excluded from child benefits. Every time China or Mexico takes a job from an American, Cass believes that the US government should respond by taking benefits away from their children, you know, to really rub it in.

More generally, Cass is stuck between the correct and populist view that an individual’s employment and earnings are affected by factors that are outside of their control and the incorrect and reactionary view that low employment and earnings are caused by individual laziness. When talking about the labor market, he waxes poetic about families being thrashed around by deindustrialization and the global race to the bottom. When talking about the welfare state, those same families are benefit scroungers that need some tough love (hunger and homelessness) to get them to act right.

If Cass’s incoherence is the best conservatives can offer to the working class, they should just hang it up.