Published July 13, 2021
Americans will start receiving monthly checks worth up to $300 per child from the federal government this Thursday, an advance on the child tax credit that Congress increased as part of the American Rescue Plan. Some conservatives have argued that this money will make recipients more dependent on government largesse. They needn’t worry. Americans have been dependent on government for decades — and they like it.
Conservatives have long feared the psychological impact of government dependence. The more Americans rely on government for their well-being, the reasoning goes, the less likely they are to try to fend for themselves. Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, food stamps and welfare have all been criticized as producing passivity and hopelessness among their recipients.
There’s no doubt that this critique has some merit. Psychologists note that “learned helplessness” is real; a person can simply stop trying to improve themselves when they repeatedly face obstacles or setbacks that they believe they cannot overcome. At one extreme, government income support programs can help foster this pathology because they shield people from the worst consequences of failure. This is a real problem that warrants attention.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.