The Ideology of Entitlement

When the child tax credit program expired at the end of last year I thought there would be a political outcry. There was a shrug. Last December, just as the expanded credit was about to expire, a poll found that 51% of Americans were okay with that and, it seems, the other half weren’t all that upset to see it go.

Some quick background. There has long been a tax break that families can take on their income taxes for each dependent child in their household. The COVID era program increased it, made it refundable (meaning you could get a payment even if you didn’t owe any taxes) and distributed some of it in the form of monthly payments. The claim was that this would cut child poverty in half.

For the record, I am against child poverty. I was for the expanded credit. But now there’s some evidence that the program’s impact was less powerful than had been originally estimated. On the other hand, the monthly cash payments had only been in place for several months, so it might be hard to gauge their long-term impact.

On the merits, I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out. Anyway, the Democrats have made reinstatement of the program a priority in this lame duck period before they lose their House majority in January. Maybe they’ll be able to put it back in place and we’ll find that in the long-run it really does work as hoped. It’s also important to point out that the program has some bipartisan support (Mitt Romney was an early champion) and that’s always good to see in this era of extreme polarization.

The child tax credit may be a good idea, but Democrats need to rethink the ideology of entitlement Photo by Sharefaith on

But I thought the Wall Street Journal made a good political point this morning:

Low-income voters are always assumed to support cash benefits, but 46% of those earning less than $50,000 opposed the payments. That may be because Americans understand that poverty in the U.S. is now less about material deprivation and more about idleness, addiction, mental illness and other destructive realities that can’t be cured with a bigger check.

This is what my party misses over and over again. We talk about a guaranteed income and that idea is even being test here in Madison. We like to talk about “health care as a human right.” We’re for forgiving student debt regardless of the individual circumstances of the borrower.

The fundamental philosophy of liberal Democrats is that there are no bad people, except maybe for “the one percent” and the “basket of deplorables” who support Donald Trump. Otherwise, nobody is responsible for how their life is turning out. All success is due to privilege, all failure to the system. Liberals see us all as just prisoners of our skin or gender or some other factor beyond our control. There is no place in liberal ideology for personal initiative or hard work. People deserve stuff just for breathing.

Now, in truth, I actually think most people (liberal or not) do believe that people should get stuff just for being alive. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see drug addicts die on the street, even if the addiction is their own fault, and I sure don’t want to see their innocent children suffer. So, as a matter of public policy, yeah, I think we need to make sure that everybody has a roof over their heads, doesn’t go hungry and that their children are well cared for by someone else if they can’t manage it themselves.

But as a matter of underlying philosophy I think liberals have it wrong. My party keeps sending the message that it is for giving stuff away to people regardless of whether or not they’ve earned it. That’s what the Wall Street Journal got right in their editorial and that’s why the child tax credit expired last year with so little outcry.

It’s fine for Democrats to work for a more secure social safety net, but they have to stop defining the party that way. My point is not that we should abandon our advocacy for the social safety net, but that we should not make that the centerpiece of what we stand for. We should be for a society of opportunity where hard work (not just existence) is guaranteed to improve your life and where you get ahead by earning it.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “The Ideology of Entitlement

  1. I’m losing you, Mayor Dave. If you are going to quote the Wall Street Journal, you should also read and quote the article in yesterday’s paper regarding how much better off citizens who graduate with no debt (generous parents, grants, scholarships, whatever reason) in their attempt to start businesses, take career risks, buy homes, prosper, etc. Read it, and then think about the notion of giving $10-20,000 debt relief to former students who are being held back because of student loan debt, which cannot be bankrupt-courted away. As for cash payments to those raising our future, it is possible for young families to appreciate help affording child care and house payments and still have a good work ethic. As a nation, we can tell our young families: you’re worth it; we’re investing in you. If those are our values. I’m not sure where the WSJ falls in the family values category when it comes to those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

    On another note, my husband unsubscribed when you went on a rant about how boring soccer is, especially compared to football. That was a bad rant. It’s possible to like both sports.


    1. The soccer rant was mostly tongue in cheek. But, seriously, if you’re going to talk about social justice, Qatar? Really?

      Also, I didn’t say that I’m against the child tax credit payments, just that it’s not clear that it will live up to its promise and that it has not proven to be a big political plus for Democrats.

      Finally, I think I quote the New York Times a lot more than the Wall Street Journal, but when I think they make a decent point I won’t get hung up on the source.


  2. Yes, this is a very difficult problem. Capitalism can be brutal; safety nets are necessary to support those who are suffering as a result.

    I was glad to see you quote the WSJ. Good reach across the proverbial aisle.

    I grew up in Chicago. In my early 20s, I was a poli sci/econ major at DePaul University. I was a gopher, I mean research assistant for my public policy prof. One summer, another gopher and I were assigned the task of going to some of the housing projects, asking residents if they felt they had a voice in politics. Obvious question, with equally obvious answers. We went to Cabrini Green and Taylor, two of the worst projects. Squalor and poverty are not close to accurate descriptions. Many residents had lived there their whole lives. My greatest takeaway was to question the value of paying people not to work. One of the grandmothers I spoke with was asking the same question. There was a devaluing of humanity going on.

    I do not think the situation has changed. The cynical part of me says that many who are behind the Woke approach would like it to stay that way.

    I do not have good answers for the problem, but I’m in agreement that just giving it away is not likely a solution.


  3. “My party keeps sending the message that it is for giving stuff away to people regardless of whether or not they’ve earned it…. they have to stop defining the party that way”

    That is what propaganda pushed by the US Right wants people to think the Democrats are for. Its not really a fact. It’s a political tactic that blog posts like this reinforce. I follow current events reasonably closely and I don’t see what you see at all except for in propaganda pieces. The Democrats do not define their party that way. They are however clearly bad at getting journalists and bloggers to write things that run counter to this narrative. But since your goal is to move the party towards the right this narrative is useful.

    The student loan forgiveness or child tax credit isn’t any more giving stuff away than any of the other hundreds of targeted subsidies that both parties support. Are farmers lazy recipients of give-always too? Universal health care isn’t a give away because it will actually be cheaper to take that common sense approach – we’ll still pay for health care, only via taxes instead of insurance premiums. Free or reduced college tuition isn’t any more of a give away than free K-12 education, it’s just an opinion on where the line should be drawn.

    “There is no place in liberal ideology for personal initiative or hard work.”
    Maybe if you don’t count Marx as liberal ideology… that famous “liberal” certainly advocated for hard work, with the twist being that one should benefit only from THEIR OWN hard work and not other peoples’. A Marxist wants everybody to take personal initiative and work hard. Maybe Democrats should pull more of that into their platform 😉


    1. I don’t want to push the party to the right, just to the center because that’s where most of the votes are or, maybe more to the point, where a better geographical distribution of votes are. You can’t win many legislatures by running up big votes in metros and college towns. Of course Republicans push this narrative, but they’re aided by their targets.


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