The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law today, contains a provision that represents a qualitative break from the welfare-to-work policies that have been in place since the 1990s. The change is also scrambling party politics — especially on the Republican side — in a way that could have lasting implications.

Oren Cass at American Compass, a conservative economic think tank, offers an alternative plan that, like Romney’s, begins by supporting parents even before their children are born. The crucial difference is that support in any given year is capped by the amount the family earned in the previous year. In essence, under Cass’s plan the government would be willing to double the income of poor families — so long as the parents work.

This approach has been pilloried by commentators across the political spectrum for penalizing poor children whose parents don’t work. But the proposal deserves to be taken seriously.

Its central points are that unconditional cash payments treat children as if they were distinct from the family, and the family as if it were distinct from a larger society that values work. Families that don’t buy into the values of a work-centric society would not only undermine popular support for cash payments, according to Cass, but they would also leave their children ill-prepared join that society.

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