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In the New York Times on Tuesday, I made the case for paying a generous new family benefit to households that have earned income of their own. A single mother with two young children, who had worked part-time at the minimum wage the prior year, could receive $800 in cash each month — nearly $10,000 annually. Little did I know, this “monstrous” idea is akin to vicious child abuse and marks me as “a profoundly evil man” for distinguishing between working families and the non-working poor. With alarming speed, an insistence that all families receive no-strings-attached cash has become table stakes in the Left’s bizarro discourse. As with social issues, where positions held by Barack Obama now constitute unconscionable bigotry, long-running and bipartisan views about fighting poverty lie suddenly beyond the pale.
At Jacobin, Matt Bruenig titled his response, “Oren Cass Is Insisting That Starving Some Kids Is Important for Society” and warned that I think families “need some tough love (hunger and homelessness).” Substack blogger Will Wilkinson titled his response to the proposal “Against Child Hostages” and featured a photo of a child cowering in a corner from a chain-wielding hand. The caption: “Don’t hit me Mr. Cass! Mommy is picking up a shift at Chili’s, I promise!” How recent is this attitude? When I spoke alongside Wilkinson at a Kennedy School panel on “big economic ideas [to] solve economic inequality” in 2018, his “big idea” was . . . zoning reform.
The problem, you see, is that my proposal for a Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) does not go as far as Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, which would offer nearly universal payments — thus including families disconnected from work entirely. The Fisc caps a family’s annual benefit at its prior year’s earnings, so no earned income would mean no benefit, though the existing safety net would remain intact. Still, the Fisc is more generous for lower-income households than what Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have proposed, which is in turn more generous than anything else seriously considered in recent memory on the right-of-center. It is also more generous than anything Hillary Clinton ever proposed, or Barack Obama, or . . . one gets the picture.
This question — whether cash benefits should go to households regardless of work — promises to be a central debate in the coming years. To be clear, the question is not whether to help those who cannot support themselves; it is how to do so. If this week’s efforts are any indication, the debate is one the Left has positioned itself to lose catastrophically. They are staking themselves to commitments that are empirically wrong and politically foolish.