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.

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