INTERVIEW: Patrick T. Brown on Working-Class Families and the Child Tax Credit

Published October 27, 2021

Spotlight on Poverty

Editor’s note: As Democrats continue to try to finalize a domestic policy spending package that would include at least a temporary extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has called for instituting work requirements for the benefit. A new report by Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Patrick T. Brown suggests that some working-class families may agree with that view. Brown spoke with Spotlight recently about the study’s findings and the continuing congressional debate over one of the Biden administration’s signature policies. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Spotlight on Poverty: Why don’t we start with some of the background on the report?

Patrick T. Brown: Sure. The Institute for Family Studies is a center/right-leaning think tank that really focuses on what it takes to build strong families through cultural policies and also public policy. We partnered with a number of different organizations—again, mostly on the right—to think about what pro-family policy means to the people whose voices aren’t often heard in DC. Something that you heard more and more over the last couple years, and that I think is very true, is that a lot of the time the conversation that take place in DC is among people who have gone to elite colleges or who are married to other people who are in an upwardly, aspirational career track. Everybody’s family has challenges, but these challenges are pretty unique to being an Acela corridor professional. And those are not the challenges that a lot of families in the rest of America are facing.

And so, we thought it was important to take the discussions that are happening around these topics, from the Child Tax Credit to child care and some of these other provisions, and just see how they resonate with people on the ground. We did three focus groups, one of white working-class parents in southwestern Ohio, one of black working-class parents in Atlanta, and then one of Hispanic parents in San Antonio. And through those two-hour-long conversations with a dozen or so parents in each session, we came up with findings that we put into a report and combined with a survey that our friends over at American Compass had done. Polling tells you one slice of reality and how people are thinking about different options, but I think you don’t really get a good sense of what’s going through people’s minds until you ask these really granular narrative questions and hear why they’re answering the way they do.

Spotlight: What are some of the things that surprised you or some of the top lines from the report?

Brown: Some of the narrative that you hear is this frustration that a lot of in the working-class people feel—people working in retail or as a cable installer or delivering for Door Dash, people who are just making ends meet. They look around at some of the people they know who are on safety net programs and just getting by and they don’t feel those people are putting in the same long hours of work. They feel frustrated that some of the people they know who are getting benefits are not working at all; they really take pride in their identity of being a worker, of being in the working class. I think that it’s really important to remember that this rhetoric that we hear around the dignity of work, which is often used to push certain policies forward, is really rooted in a deep-seated pride that a lot of these people have. They really feel they are playing by the rules and they want an approach to family policy that rewards that. At the same time, we heard from several parents this feeling of you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t—this idea that you’re working hard, but your paycheck doesn’t keep up with the cost of living, but you’re also ineligible for safety net programs because you have too much income. This feeling of being caught betwixt and between came up a number of times and I thought that was interesting.

The last thing that really jumped out at me was just how disconnected many of the solutions that are being proposed in DC are from what these families are asking for. Even some of the self-described progressive parents who we talked to didn’t really resonate with the idea of universal childcare and there was a lot of debate about whether the extended Child Tax Credit should go to non-working families. I think we saw that the political class and the lower-to-middle working class are just in completely different ballparks when it comes to understanding family policy issues. So, I think it’s important that people in DC be listening to parents who are out there on the ground.

Spotlight: And did that feeling extend to some of the aid that’s been offered during the pandemic such as the stimulus checks? Was there the same feeling that those programs should have been more targeted to working families?

Brown: That, I think, was seen as being sort of sui generis. The pandemic was such a shock to everybody and a lot of the parents we talked to were very grateful for the checks that they had gotten. And some had lost jobs and housing during the pandemic. I remember one African-American mom in Georgia saying she hadn’t spent her stimulus check yet because she was afraid the government was going to come back and take it away from here. There was this sense of, what’s the catch here?

We also heard from people who saw the pandemic as this re-setting event. A lot of people talked about now having a different attitude toward work and family, especially some of the moms talking about wanting to have a more flexible work arrangement—working from home, working less hours and that kind of thing. But I think in terms of a policy response, there was not that same insistence about focusing on working families first.

Spotlight: Let me ask that a slightly different way.  There is this feeling in some circles in Washington that the pandemic experience has created much more support for a more no-strings-attached kind of aid policy. It sounds like you did not really hear that in the work that you’ve done.

Brown: With the people we talked to, that really didn’t come across. The idea that this changes everything didn’t really come across—it was more that this was a really weird experience that we hope we never go through again.

Spotlight: Well, let’s go to the expanded Child Tax Credit which I guess is the best example of a program born during the pandemic that now may be extended or made permanent. What did you hear about that?

Brown: Naively, going into it. I thought these are the type of people who are going to be helped the most by the expanded Child Tax Credit. And we did hear that. But I remember one mom who ticked through all the things that she could use the $300 a month for, but in the next sentence said, but I worry about people abusing it, living off the dole, not paying into the system and not having to work. There was this real tension, this innate sense of fairness, of not wanting to feel like other people are getting one over on you. If we think of this as a social insurance program, some people felt that they were paying their premium by working and there’s other people who aren’t. It was a fascinating discussion, and so far as this narrative that there are people out there just clamoring for universal child benefits, it just wasn’t true. It was a much more complex story than that.

Spotlight: So, you didn’t a lot of support for the universality that many of the proponents of the CTC find as a major selling point?

Brown: No. And I’ve written in the past about the conservative case for a universal child benefit, like the one Senator (Mitt) Romney (R-UT) proposed earlier this year, so I’m pretty intuitively inclined to want it. But in terms of this idea that if you give it to everybody, then everybody’s kind of bought in and it helps increase the popularity, that wasn’t necessarily true with the parents we spoke with.

Spotlight: And there are people on the Hill who would like to see work requirements built into the CTC policy. Did they see you study as supporting that view?

Brown: We’ve definitely talked to people on the Hill and as we’re talking now, the real lynchpin in the Senate is Senator (Joe) Manchin from West Virginia (D) and he’s spoken pretty openly about his desire for there to be some sort of work requirement attached to it. And one thing that has been reported and which I think is kind of interesting is that he’s concerned about West Virginia’s skyrocketing, opioid crisis and worries that no-strings-attached cash will make that worse.

Spotlight: I also wanted you to elaborate a bit on what you heard about universal child care:

Brown: Again, it was definitely a tension because people really placed a strong emphasis on work, but at the same time they said we don’t necessarily want government making decisions for people when it comes to family and work life. So, it’s kind of a narrow needle to thread. There were some who said, I pay almost as much for childcare as I bring home and it sure would be great if the child care support for low-income people reached people in the middle class. I think there probably was a plurality of people who agreed with the idea that child care is really expensive and we should be giving people more options. But where people reacted negatively was the idea that we want to expand Head Start to encompass more kids or to roll the K-12 system down to lower and lower ages because people felt that those years are so precious. If you’re talking about government-run child care, people had an instinctive reaction that this isn’t going to be high quality. Give me options, give me resources to afford more and more options, but don’t give me a default where I don’t feel agency.

These questions of work and family really touch off a lot of strong emotions about what is important. And I think these focus groups really show that there’s no simple partisan divide in this and that the reality of how people think about these issues is so much more complex than it’s often portrayed.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was a senior policy adviser to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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