Earlier this month, as negotiations over the Build Back Better bill wore on, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called Senator Joe Manchin’s obstructionist position on the very popular child care, elder care, family leave, free community college, green jobs (and much more) reconciliation bill “arbitrary centrism.” Someone he interviewed, Samuel Hammond from the centrist Niskanen Center, called it “performative austerity.” That sent me to “dog whistle,” personally, though I’m not sure Sargent or Hammond would sign on to that. But let’s be clear: Manchin’s language—about “entitlement” and “means testing” in particular—is straight out of the 1990s. That’s when white Democrats (and even a few Black Democrats, to be honest) attacked many programs set up to help poor families by claiming that they enabled their supposedly worst habits: idleness and—I’m not sure there’s a single word here—failure to marry.
Oh, excuse me: their mothers’ worst habits. Remember when The New Republic put a Black mom smoking on its cover, titling its editorial calling for welfare reform “Day of Reckoning: Sign the Welfare Bill Now”?
Those were the days! At least for white male Democrats who were borderline racist, or maybe even truly racist—or just trying to court truly racist voters. They could even say they were trying to help poor people. President Clinton’s 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which passed with bipartisan support, allowed states to slash cash benefits and impose work requirements on welfare recipients. The result, 25 years later, is a safety net so threadbare that many families fall right through it.
Meanwhile, just a few years back, Donald Trump and then–House Speaker Paul Ryan found common cause in trying to impose work requirements on food stamp and Medicaid recipients. This time around, though, Democrats weren’t having any of that—and when they took back the House in 2018, they packed those ideas up with Speaker Ryan’s office and sent them to… I don’t even know, without Googling, where Paul Ryan is now. That’s a good feeling. But now we have Joe Manchin to do Paul Ryan’s dirty work.
Manchin has told fellow Democrats that the expanded child tax credit (CTC) must have a new work requirement and be capped at family incomes of $60,000 or so. “I’ve been very clear when it comes to who we are as a society, who we are as a nation,” he said recently. “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society. I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society.”
On the night of October 21, President Joe Biden told a CNN town hall that he opposes the work requirement. “All these people are working anyway,” he told Anderson Cooper. (And those who aren’t working are disproportionately the poorest of the poor.) So that should be that—except there’s no word as to whether President Manchin agrees.
What is Manchin really doing here?
I’m agnostic about whether the CTC should be capped. I know parents in New York and San Francisco who make decent money but have been happy to have some breathing room—for child care, orthodontics, or unexpected crises. Parents everywhere are using it to buy baby formula, school supplies, and… just plain food.
Given that the 48 decent Democrats who support Biden’s bill have to get to 50, and given that the two Democrats whose votes they need aren’t quite decent, there will have to be some negotiation. (I’m still not sure what Kyrsten Sinema is holding out for.) By the time you read this, the deal may be done. But it’s worth noting that a work requirement is a dog whistle, playing to old racist stereotypes, though in reality more white families would be hurt than anyone else. Doesn’t Manchin know we all can hear him?
Also, as Greg Sargent pointed out, Mr. West Virginia would only be hurting West Virginia with his proposals. The Niskanen Center found that Manchin’s state is in the top 10 when it comes to expanded purchasing power thanks to the CTC. If Manchin got his way, Sargent wrote, “the number of children benefiting would be cut by as many as 190,000, and the state’s residents could lose more than a quarter billion dollars in annual purchasing power.” “If Manchin is worried about dependency, he should see the value in having the CTC be relatively universal,” Hammond told Sargent. “Narrowly targeting the credit to the lowest income families risks creating a stigmatizing poverty trap.”
Democrats have come a long way since the 1990s. There’s near-consensus that the big problem facing American families is income inequality and an inability to get ahead—not “dependency.” So Manchin’s “performative austerity” is a step backward. It’s meant to show his state’s mainly white voters he’s looking out for welfare cheats and others trying to game the system—even if it deprives those same voters of needed help.
Along with his alleged offer to leave the Democratic Party to become an independent (while still caucusing with Democrats), his dust-up with Senator Bernie Sanders (in which he reportedly said he’d prefer no bill at all to the Biden bill) shows that Manchin is clearly enjoying the spotlight. But let’s make sure we spotlight exactly how backward his priorities are. Promoting “means testing” and trashing “entitlements” harks back to a punitive and often racist approach to social policy. You don’t have to leave the Democratic Party, Senator Manchin. But you might need to recognize the party has already left you.