Opinion: Why pro-work Republicans should support the Biden economic agenda
Columnist/The Washington Post
Feb. 25, 2021 at 4:46 p.m. EST
Conservatives who want to make the safety net more “pro-work” might find the answer to their prayers in an unexpected place: President Biden’s economic agenda.
Republicans are — once again — whipping themselves into a moral panic over whether the social safety net is denigrating the “dignity of work” and promoting collective laziness. This echoes a similar (though more bipartisan, overtly racialized) mass hysteria in the 1980s and 1990s, over the traditional welfare system and the “queens” it supposedly coronated. This recurred about a decade ago, when some conservatives suggested that overly generous unemployment benefits had turned the Great Recession into a “Great Vacation.” Then-congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) warned that the safety net was becoming a “hammock.”
Today’s frenzy was sparked by proposals to issue monthly payments to families with children, even if the parents have very low or no earnings. These “child allowances” have the potential to lift millions of kids, disproportionately children of color, out of poverty. Democrats, urged by Biden, put a temporary version of this proposal in their covid-19 relief bill. Once Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) released a version of the proposal, child allowances appeared to have a bipartisan path forward.
But other Republicans were swift to denounce the effort. Giving money to poor parents with no strings attached would breed idleness, they warned. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) protested that sending per-child payments to “everyone, with no work requirement, is welfare,” and that “being pro-family means being pro-work.”
My feeling is: It’s not so terrible if $250 a month gives a single mom the freedom to forgo the occasional night shift and instead be home for bedtime. But Republicans appear to believe the primary goal of economic policy is to promote work, and specifically additional work hours for the poor, whenever possible.
Given this priority, one wonders: Why haven’t Republicans been pushing harder to expand the parts of the safety net that support work?
For instance: access to reliable, affordable child care, which has traditionally been a Democratic priority.
For many parents, lack of child care is a major obstacle to maintaining a job. The limited child-care system that exists has been battered by the pandemic. Biden’s American Rescue Plan would devote greater resources to rebuilding and expanding this critical pro-work infrastructure.
Similarly, paid family leave, which every other rich nation already guarantees, could help keep parents (particularly mothers) attached to the workforce. For all our cultural fetishization of work, the United States lags behind other developed nations in prime-age women’s participation in the labor force; one apparent reason, according to a study from Cornell economists, is that other countries have done more to mandate expansions of family-friendly policies, including paid parental leave and part-time work arrangements.
These countries seem to have more “hammock”-like safety nets, by Republicans’ reckoning, yet do a better job of trampolining working-age women into jobs.
Access to medical care also helps workers remain healthy enough to maintain employment. In recent years, however, Republicans have pushed policies that reduce Medicaid access for low-income people, arguing that public insurance should be reserved for those who prove their worth by having already logged sufficient hours. This gets the relationship between health coverage and employment backward: Access to health care supports work, particularly for those with chronic conditions.
Better public transportation — a goal of “Amtrak Joe’s” infrastructure plan — would likewise increase people’s ability to reliably get to and from work, particularly among lower-income people who are less likely to own cars.
Raising the returns to work — through some combination of higher minimum wages and government subsidies (such as an expanded earned-income tax credit) — would also make work more attractive. Particularly for those facing, say, a two-hour commute on multiple buses and expensive half-day child care to make a measly $7.25 an hour.
In other words: Instead of making poverty more painful, Republicans could promote ways to make jobs more accessible, available and rewarding. As the Biden agenda does.
What about those Biden-endorsed child allowances? Yes, probably some parents will cut back their work hours, though not enough to substantially offset the policy’s impact on poverty reduction, according to estimates from the National Academies of Sciences. In any case, that doesn’t mean the policy is, on the whole, “anti-work” — particularly given the effect on children in those households.
Research on a 20th-century “Mothers’ Pension” program found that poor kids whose families received similar, unconditional cash payments went on to have higher income as adults. There is a whole literature, summarized by economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, documenting the ways that investing in kids helps them have better economic outcomes as adults, including higher employment rates and earnings. Yet rarely do “pro-work” Republicans advocate higher food stamps, educational spending or other safety-net investments that enable kids to grow up to be more productive workers.
It’s almost as if this whole “pro-work” moral panic isn’t about work at all.
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