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Scott Walker is giving Wisconsin families $100 per kid. Democrats should learn from that.

It’s not meant to fight poverty. But a better version could.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Scott Walker, the two-term Republican governor of Wisconsin currently running for a third, has a bold election strategy this year: just give people money.

Starting May 15, as Wonkblog’s Jeff Stein explains, Wisconsin parents can go online and receive checks of $100 per child. The payments come a month after Wisconsin income taxes were due and are framed as a refund for “sales and use tax paid on purchases made for raising a dependent child in 2017”:

The child tax rebate website

Tax experts are baffled by the news — Scott Drenkard at the conservative Tax Foundation told Stein, “it’s hard to see how it improves economic outcomes” — and political opponents are furious. State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, one of the Democrats challenging Walker for reelection, said voters are being “bribed with a $100 payment.”

So let me offer an incredibly tepid, caveated defense of Walker’s weird $100 quasi-bribe. It’s poorly designed and it’s not large enough, but it’s also an unconditional cash transfer available to poor families with children, one that in a small way makes life easier for parents and children in the state.

To be clear, I’m not under any illusion that this policy is an anti-poverty best practice, or that Walker is pursuing it for anything approaching the right reasons. When the policy was being debated, he offered to make it “nonrefundable,” meaning that families too poor to pay income tax wouldn’t get any relief. That would’ve effectively eliminated any anti-poverty effect of the policy. Walker has also attempted to implement drug testing and work requirements for food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid. He’s not exactly a friend to the poor.

What’s more, there are some barriers to poor families getting the money, like the requirement that recipients of the funds have bank accounts for direct deposits. After looking over the procedure for filing for the refund, Tim Smeeding, an economist and poverty expert at the University of Wisconsin Madison, commented, “I am sure poor people won’t follow all of this and won’t get the money.”

Still, the reaction to the payment is striking to me. The main grievance, it appears, is the impression of vote-buying. Vinehout, the gubernatorial candidate, raised that concern, as did lieutenant governor candidates Mandela Barnes (who told the Post’s Stein, “Everyone I’ve talked to sees it as a blatant payoff”) and even fellow conservatives, like Wisconsin talk show host Jay Weber:

The implicit idea is that just giving cash to every family is so popular, so obviously beneficial and inclined to make voters like you, that it’s borderline unfair to do it.

But a bevy of poverty experts have been recommending for years that the US adopt a child allowance, a policy most other rich countries have where all or almost all families get a set amount of cash per child, unconditionally, to spend however they wish. One plan, introduced in the US Senate by Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), would offer between $250 and $300 per month per child for all poor and middle-class families and would cut child poverty almost in half. That proposal was inspired by an academic paper released by a group of poverty experts including Smeeding, Michigan’s Luke Shaefer, Columbia’s Jane Waldfogel, Princeton’s Kathryn Edin, and more, which argued for a similarly sized monthly payment for all families.

Keeping it simple and taking credit

Giving cash to families with no strings attached isn’t a pointless gimmick. If done well, it’s the cornerstone of the entire safety net, and the US should be doing a lot more of it.

Obviously, $100 per child per year is not on the scale necessary to make a huge dent in child poverty, and Walker is not framing this proposal as a way to address poverty. Anti-poverty advocates in Wisconsin don’t see it as a significant win, especially in light of Walker’s efforts to undermine other anti-poverty programs. The small scale is part of why it’s seen not as a way to help families but as a cynical ploy, a shameless attempt to curry favor.

But the panic that some of the idea’s opponents have about it being tremendously popular is a sign that more ambitious and effective child allowance proposals could be tremendously popular as well. Maybe we’ve always known that — the reaction to Walker has certainly been premised on the idea that this is an incredibly obvious point — but if “universal child cash grants are popular” is a universally known truth of the universe, American politicians at the state level, even liberal Democrats, haven’t been acting accordingly. New York offers a minimum $100-per-child refundable credit, even for families that don’t earn enough to receive the federal child tax credit, but it’s the only state to do so.

Imagine a less anti-poor governor than Walker— perhaps a successor in Wisconsin, or a Democrat with a legislative majority like Washington’s Jay Inslee or Oregon’s Kate Brown, or a Republican in a blue state like Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker — proposed a $1,000-per-child rebate, paid annually to all families regardless of income. They could make claiming it automatic and simple, unlike Walker. It’d be expensive, for sure, but hardly inconceivable in a state budget, especially if funded by getting rid of personal exemptions and standard deductions in a state income tax. Washington, which lacks an income tax, could frame it as a sales tax rebate, just as Walker did.

Now imagine they, like Walker, set it up in a way that would maximize the credit they received for the policy from voters. Perhaps payments would be delivered every October, so election year ones come right before voters go to the polls. Perhaps the payments would go out as novelty checks with the governor’s face on them. Would it be weird and unbecoming? Sure. Would it also be a way governors could make a dent in poverty while helping themselves politically? Absolutely. One of the most difficult aspects of making policy better for poor people is aligning the interests of politicians with those of the poor. Extremely tacky credit-grabbing cash checks to families do exactly that.

Jack Meserve, the managing editor of the center-left journal Democracy, wrote an influential piece last year calling on progressive politicians to “keep it simple and take credit.” Don’t, as Obama did as part of his stimulus package, structure tax cuts so that the government just withholds less of paychecks. Make the payments public and noticeable so voters know who sent them, like FDR did when unveiling Social Security, or George W. Bush did when he sent out $600 rebate checks as part of his 2001 tax cuts.

Scott Walker, whatever else can be said about him, is keeping it simple and taking credit. Politicians more interested in helping the poor than he is should do the same.

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