Child tax credit TikTok memes suggest politics has legs

I have been covering tax policy in the United States for over a decade now, and I can say with confidence that the provisions of the tax code don’t often go viral.

Enter the Child Tax Credit, which was temporarily significantly expanded in President Joe Biden’s US bailout, with monthly payments hitting households starting July 15. Sudden deposits – up to $ 250 per child aged 6 to 17 and $ 300 per child under 6 – have been such a delight to many parents that hashtags # child tax credit and #childtaxcredit2021 has exploded on TikTok, with tens of millions of views under each at the time of writing.

Paul Williams, economist and writer, was compile some of the best posts (many incorporating The popular dance “So we Dance” by Usim E. Mang) in a Twitter feed.

I have a weakness for mother-son version of @yellowha:

And the account @ femmeetmomlife’s, on the soul classic “Bound” of the Ponderosa Twins Plus One:

This is a continuation of a trend we also saw with the April 2020, December 2020, and March 2021 stimulus checks – when the government sends money like this, out of the normal process. tax return and to a larger population than those affected by programs such as SNAP / Food Stamps or Housing Vouchers in Section 8, this policy is entering the public consciousness. The checks are stored. People post dance videos about them.

As someone who has supported these stimulus payments and is a strong supporter of making the new child tax credit payments permanent and easy to access, this is extremely encouraging. This implies that check-based programs can avert some of the US government’s worst pathologies and unlock one of the most powerful and positive forces in politics: political feedback.

Checks make us go overwhelmed

Usually when the US government decides to help people, it does so in a veiled, even impenetrable way.

Take accommodation. There is no government agency whose website you can go to, fill out a form, and receive, say, a check for $ 10,000 to help you put down a down payment for a house.

Instead, there are obscure measures and opaque institutions that aim to help. There is the Federal Housing Administration, which insures certain mortgages in the hope of making it easier and cheaper for buyers to get a loan. This agency runs two quasi-government companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which bundle mortgages and sell them to investors, hoping to indirectly make your mortgage cheaper. It also offers a tax deduction for your mortgage interest once you buy a home, but only if you itemize your deductions.

This system of indirect government interventions that are obscure or invisible to the average citizen is part of what Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls “”submerged state. ”

The obscurity of the submerged state, argues Mettler, has significant costs for our democracy. It erodes the public’s belief in government effectiveness by hiding out of sight the government benefits that voters receive. Another example: Middle-class Americans who got subsidized student loans to pay for their education and deduct mortgage interest from their taxes, also receive government benefits, but those benefits are not perceived the same way as, say , social Security.

In addition to keeping the government’s role in improving lives hidden, the overwhelmed state comes at another major cost. Georgetown political scientists Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd have argued convincingly that overwhelmed state-type programs impose “administrative burdens“on low-income people, from the demands of working in programs like food stamps to the burden of navigating the the complex parameters of the income tax credit.

Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins called this problem “kludgeocracy“- a government held together by” an inelegant patch[es] set up to solve an unexpected problem ”rather than designed to work clean from the start. Teles argues that this piecemeal approach also results in exorbitant compliance costs, makes government administration more difficult, and makes it easier for companies to extract rents from government.

This problem has, for years, been a major concern for people who study the US government.

What is striking about the expansion of the child tax credit and the stimulus checks that preceded it is how it completely rejects the overwhelmed state model. Payments aren’t hidden or obscure to their recipients – they take the form of a big check in the mail, or a sudden big deposit into your bank account. The IRS also recipient letters explaining that they were going to get the money.

Plus, the payments all happen at the same time, making it a natural thing to post on social media, where your friends will experience the same thing and find it relevant.

This does not mean, of course, that the deployment of the child tax credit was perfect. The registration system for people who do not declare tax was much too difficult to use. But the process has been much more accessible than most government programs. If something is a meme on TikTok, it’s hardly a part of the submerged state.

How politicians can create new constituencies

Precisely because the expansion of the child tax credit is not very submerged, it could unlock a political dynamic that would allow it to survive beyond 2021. This results in a powerful and intuitive idea of ​​political science: policy feedback.

Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson, in his classic 1994 book Dismantle the welfare state? and 1996 article “The new policy of the welfare state,Has shown that once a social protection policy is enacted and a sufficient number of people who benefit from it are aware and able to defend it, that policy can be quite difficult to roll back.

“People who are on benefits, they’re going to react quite strongly to what’s taken away from them,” Pierson told me in 2017, when precisely this dynamic kept Republicans from repealing the Affordable Care Act. “A taxpayer pays for a lot of things and cares a little about everything, but the person receiving the benefits will care a lot. “

There is reason to believe that this dynamic has cooled a bit in recent years, as the parties have become more intense and ideologically polarized. Although the Affordable Care Act was not repealed, in large part because seven Senate Republicans were unwilling to repeal the ACA’s extension of Medicaid coverage, it still did. closer together, which never happened with previous programs like Social Security or Medicare.

Now the expansion of the child tax credit will expire in a year. Given its massive impact on child poverty, making it permanent should be a priority for Democrats. Given the polarization of Congress and its status quo bias, one should not be overconfident about the prospects for permanent expansion.

Having said that, a policy with a strong and vocal base of beneficiaries who can defend it is a strong policy. And, seriously, the TikTok memes on the child tax credit give me hope that the policy is building that kind of base of support. Look how thrilled all of these parents are – and think how furious they would be to have that support taken away.

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