Why One City's War On Child Poverty Should Matter To Voters In November

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FLINT, Michigan ― The story of a wildly successful antipoverty program is also one of the most disheartening tales of Joe Biden’s presidency.

In 2021, Biden and congressional Democrats expanded a tax credit for children, transforming it from a targeted, sliding-scale subsidy to a simpler, more straightforward form of financial assistance. It was a version of an idea that’s become the hottest concept in antipoverty policy ― just giving people money, without restrictions on its use or complex eligibility procedures. By nearly all accounts, it worked magnificently. That year, the U.S. poverty rate hit a record low.

The expansion was one of the COVID-19 relief measures in the American Rescue Plan, which passed on party lines. Biden and his allies had hoped to extend the program, making it permanent. But to do that, they needed every single vote from their 50-seat Democratic majority in the Senate. And they couldn’t get Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, to go along. The program expired at the end of the year.

Now, with the tax credit back to its more complicated, restrictive version, poverty is back up. And although a year’s worth of helping low-income families with kids surely did a lot of good, neither Biden nor the Democrats have gotten much credit for that. Few Americans are even aware of the program, or of Biden’s role in it. And among those familiar with the program’s history, the prevailing sentiment seems to be disappointment at the failure to make it permanent.

But there’s a coda to this story involving a new initiative in Flint, Michigan, that’s already helping hundreds of families. And it’s got political relevance, given that it probably wouldn’t have happened without the help of Biden and other Democrats.

If the program lives up to its billing, it could inspire copycat efforts around the country, fueling calls to resurrect a federal version of the program. But the prospects for those efforts depend on keeping sympathetic leaders in office, which in turn depends on what happens in the next election.

A Prescription To Fight Poverty

The program, Rx Kids, gives $1,500 cash grants to expectant mothers and $500 a month for the first year of the child’s life. The only requirement is Flint residency; parents can spend the money however they think best. And, crucially, it’s believed to be the first such initiative available to all qualifying parents and kids in a geographic area. Similar, existing programs in communities around the country are much smaller, typically selecting participants by lottery.

I wrote about the initiative last year when I heard about it from its creators. One is Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician famous for her role in detecting and publicizing the city’s water crisis. The other is Luke Shaefer, a professor and director of the Poverty Solutions program at the University of Michigan (where I am also a lecturer).

Hanna-Attisha said the inspiration came from moms and kids in her practice, and realizing how much struggles with food, rent and other bills were making it difficult for them to stay healthy and get medical care. Shaefer was eager for the chance to make a program available to everybody in a geographic area rather than picking a select few by lottery, which is how existing pilot programs typically work.

“Babies need stuff ― they’re expensive,” Hanna-Attisha explained when we spoke last year. “Child care is expensive. Parental leave policies are limited. So this is when poverty spikes and, once again, this is maddening as a pediatrician, because this is when child development is the most critical. It is in this year of life that the brains double in size.”

At the time of our conversation, the two were in the process of securing funding ― first in the form of a $15 million pledge from the Flint-based Mott Foundation, then through $17.5 million in appropriations from state and local government. They’re up to $43 million total now, thanks to some additional grants, and that was enough to launch the program in January. Among the families that have already signed up, more than half have annual household incomes below $10,000, Hanna-Attisha told me.

The rollout included a public celebration on Wednesday, with local artists performing at a historic theater in downtown Flint. Among the dignitaries in attendance were Debbie Stabenow, Michigan’s senior Democratic senator, and Gene Sperling, one of Biden’s top White House advisers. Both have ties to the state; Sperling, a well-known Michigan Wolverines fan, grew up in Ann Arbor. But they were also on official business.

Flint’s contribution to the program came through money that was available to the city via the American Rescue Plan, the same Democratic initiative that had funded the temporary expansion of the child tax credit. Stabenow, a longtime champion of programs to support child health and nutrition, was among the Democrats who made the American Rescue Plan possible with their votes. Sperling was in charge of administering it after Biden signed it.

In his remarks, Sperling acknowledged the bittersweet part of the story ― that they couldn’t find the votes to keep the federal version assistance going past one year. But Sperling, citing his experience working in the Clinton and Obama administrations, reminded the audience that progress can take time. Initiatives like Flint’s Rx Kids can be part of that process, he promised, by demonstrating to the rest of the country how well such a program can work.

“When people see this has been successful ― I promise you, I’ve been at this for 30 years ― it will expand to city after city after city after city in this country,” Sperling said. “People will look back at this and they’ll say, ‘Oh, do you know that the idea that a mother of new parents get help with their child, to make sure they can provide for them in the first year of life? You know, that’s nationwide now. It started in Flint in 2024.’”

An Issue For The Voters, Too

The program’s founders hope they can help that process along. Shaefer’s research group will be collecting data and publishing findings on the program’s effects as it goes forward, while Hanna-Attisha will be using her high media profile to tell stories. At Wednesday’s event, I got to watch that happen as she introduced Sperling to one of the women now receiving checks ― a single mother who’s been through recovery and is using the money to get stable housing.

The initial $43 million should cover four years of funding. It would take more money to sustain the program beyond that, just as it would take more money to launch similar programs in other communities ― and a lot more money to create a national version, as its advocates hope to do.

They can argue, plausibly, that investments early in life pay off over the long run, by putting children on track for healthier, more productive lives and reducing the need for costly government interventions along the way. But while the concept of unrestricted cash assistance has picked up bipartisan support, and there’s talk of a deal this year that might revive the expanded federal assistance in some form, one side of the political aisle seems a lot more enthusiastic ― and a lot more willing to appropriate public dollars.

After all, it’s not coincidental that Rx Kids already got state money at a time when the governor was Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, and Michigan’s legislature was under Democratic control. (Whitmer’s latest budget proposal calls for still larger allocations for direct assistance programs.) Nor is it coincidental that Rx Kids got money from Flint at a time when city officials could use funds they’d received from a program enacted by Democrats in Washington.

It’s up to the voters, including this November, whether similarly committed officials remain in power. Legislative majorities in both Lansing and Washington are up for grabs in 2024, and that includes Stabenow’s seat because she’s retiring. Then there’s the presidential election, which is shaping up as a rematch between Biden and Donald Trump.

One liability for Biden is that many voters don’t believe he’s accomplished much, a sentiment quite possibly reinforced by his failure to extend temporary relief measures like the child tax credit expansion. But no presidency realizes everything on its agenda. Even the best only notch a few big victories, and then myriad smaller ones that, over time, can inspire bigger and broader efforts.

If someday the U.S. has a nationwide cash allowance for kids, the launch and performance of Rx Kids might be part of the reason why. And in the meantime? A bunch of families in one of America’s most distressed cities are going to get some badly needed assistance. That’s worth noting for its own sake, and for its political implications too.


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