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Obama is testing Paul Ryan's commitment to fighting poverty, and Ryan is failing badly

You've got to do more than just say you'll boost the EITC. You have to actually do it.
You've got to do more than just say you'll boost the EITC. You have to actually do it.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

One of the most encouraging economic policy developments of the past few years has been Republicans' newfound love of tax breaks for low-income people. Paul Ryan made an Earned Income Tax Credit expansion the centerpiece of his anti-poverty plan, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has championed a tax reform proposal greatly increasing the Child Tax Credit, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has signed onto as well. Together, the EITC and CTC lifted about 10.1 million people out of poverty in 2012.

But these anti-poverty tax breaks are now in danger. Expansions to both credits are set to expire in 2017, and a deal to extend corporate tax breaks worked out by Republican House Ways and Means chair Dave Camp and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid wouldn't have made the low-income tax breaks permanent. That prompted an Obama administration veto threat.

So have the GOP Senators who say they favor these programs rallied to their defense? Not really. It's a perfect test of whether Ryan, Lee, and Rubio are serious about their newfound interest in fighting poverty, and as it stands they're failing.

What's at stake if the credits expire

poverty food stamps

Ricky Swift (right) and others wait in line to apply for food stamps at the Cooperative Feeding Program on February 10, 2011 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The 2009 stimulus package decreased the income threshold for receiving the CTC, meaning many more low-income families had access to it; it also boosted the EITC for married couples and families with three or more children. Those expansions were set to expire on January 1, 2013 along with the Bush tax cuts, but were extended to 2017 as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal.

Letting those expansions expire would effectively mean a big tax increase on the poorest Americans. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates 50 million Americans would lose money, and 16 million would be pushed into, or deeper into, poverty. For example, a single mom with two kids and a full-time minimum wage job ($14,500 a year) would lose her entire child tax credit, worth $1,725 — an over 10 percent cut in income.

These expansions really matter for poor families, and protecting them ought to be a baseline requirement to be taken seriously as a supporter of the EITC and CTC. Yet Republicans who back the credits rhetorically aren't standing up to defend them.

Why aren't Republicans speaking up for the provisions?

This isn't new, exactly. Republican EITC/CTC fans like Ryan, Lee, and Rubio haven't ever explicitly supported making the 2009 expansions permanent. Ryan's poverty plan mentions the EITC expansion but doesn't state an opinion on it.

But now that the future of the expansions is a topic of active Congressional dispute, their silence is becoming more conspicuous. Ryan spokesman William Allison says the Congressman, who'll take over Ways and Means from Camp next year, will "respect Chairman Camp’s jurisdiction and defer to the current Ways and Means operation" rather than weighing in.

Lee appears actively opposed to making the credits permanent in the tax deal. Asked if Lee supports making the credit expansions permanent, spokesman Brian Phillips replied, "Not this way.  Both programs need reform and should be addressed in standalone bills. And the EITC should be coupled with broader welfare reform." A spokesman for Rubio has yet to respond to a request for comment.

All this plays into a sense that Republican support for low-income credits is insincere and/or contingent on cuts to other benefits. "The ultimate trouble is that the EITC costs money," Jonathan Chait once noted. "And when you get into the gritty reality, Republicans are not willing to devote resources to it."

I want Chait to be wrong. There should be potential for bipartisan collaboration to enhance the safety net for low-income families. But so far, Ryan, Lee, and Rubio's actions suggest that their support for tax breaks for the poor is entirely theoretical.

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