Not Even Covid Relief Can Escape the Culture Wars
The push by some lawmakers to target covid-19 relief checks away from upper income earners is not about making sure aid goes to the most needy.
On Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein announced that senior Democratic officials were considering changing the income eligibility threshold for the next round of covid-19 relief checks sent to the public. According to Stein, the payments would start to phase out for single individuals making more than $50,000; for individuals with dependents making more $75,000; and for married couples making more than $100,000. Stein’s reporting was confirmed by Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday, with Psaki emphasizing the “targeted” portion of the plan only refers to who is eligible to receive a check rather than the amount of the checks ($1,400).
The covid-19 relief package released by 10 Senate Republicans earlier this week also had language around targeting the relief checks based on income. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has been perhaps the most prominent advocate of targeting the relief checks; with Democrats holding a narrow Senate majority, he will be a crucial vote on the legislation if it must pass via reconciliation.
The notion of targeted economic relief to the most vulnerable Americans in the middle of a deadly pandemic is far from an unreasonable ask. People whose incomes lie above the median for most U.S. households are more likely to have the kinds of jobs that can be done remotely, and are thus not dependent on face-to-face interactions the way many low-wage jobs are. Higher-than-average income earners are also likely to have financial resources, such as savings or early retirement options, to support them if they must leave the workforce.
But none of this means economic policy ought to cradle Americans’ obsessive fear that someone somewhere may get money from the government that she doesn’t actually need.
Indeed the bipartisan support for targeting the relief checks away from above-average income earners when there is not equal solidarity for increasing actual wealthy people’s share in taxes paid (or even offsetting the amount of the relief checks with a smaller tax refund for upper income earners) suggests there’s a different class politics at play here than “screw the rich”. When Democrats like Joe Manchin talk about limiting relief checks to those who need it, they mean those who are most likely to use the money to buy food and pay rent, not those who can afford to use the money to pay off student loans, credit cards, or other “unnecessary” debt.
To put this another way: The push to target the relief checks is less about who is deserving of relief than it is about the kinds of expenses that are deserving of relief. It seems that in the age of anti-establishment populism, Republicans and red state Democrats have found common ground in their animus for debt they associate with liberal decadence — expensive college degrees, housing in high-cost metros, “woke” shopping habits.
To be sure, the Biden administration has already taken steps to help upper income people who may be in debt, including extending the federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures as well as the suspension of federal student loan repayment. But delaying payments for a few months isn’t the same thing as giving people money to pay down their debts or giving them relief from owing debt altogether.
In fact, the broader debate over college affordability — whether it’s making public colleges tuition-free or cancelling student loan debt — reflects some of the red vs. blue, urban vs. rural, college vs. noncollege culture war fights that are cropping up in calls to target covid-19 relief checks. During the 2020 Democratic primary, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar slammed a proposal put forward by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to make four-year colleges tuition-free, arguing the plan would mean “sending rich kids to college for free.” Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who now heads the U.S. Department of Transportation, also pushed back on the Sanders proposal during the primary by saying the government should focus on helping those who choose not to attend four-year schools instead of footing the bill for “children of millionaires and billionaires.”
Their criticisms ignore the long-term benefits of having millions of low-income and middle-class young adults enter the workforce debt-free. Instead, a caricature — some McMansion-dwelling 18 year old from John’s Creek, Georgia getting a taxpayer-funded full-ride to Berkeley to study critical race theory — becomes the face of the tuition-free college movement and exacerbates cultural anxieties around government waste and abuse of funds.
The panic over not-so-poor people getting benefits that poor people get is, in some ways, a populist inversion of how Americans conceive of the deserving and undeserving poor. As antipoverty academic Robert L. Fischer explained in 2018, policy discussions around the American social safety net tend to “identify certain categories of the poor as more deserving of assistance” than others. President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which included changes to welfare policy that allowed states to add work requirements for able-bodied adults as a condition of receiving food stamps, codified the idea that public assistance should only be available to those who suffer through no fault of their own.
In other words, the law mandated that if welfare is going to exist, it shouldn’t be wasted on people who don’t know the value of hard work, personal responsibility, and fiscal restraint, much like the welfare queens in President Reagan’s imagination who use public assistance to support their self-indulgence. Today, the right’s obsession with liberal decadence is not limited to poor and working class people of color who typically vote Democrat. It now includes middle and upper-middle class whites whose leftward turn in recent years now makes them part of the much-hated cabal of coastal elites who think their “wokeness” makes them better than everybody else.
Income has never been a great way to assess need, and this is more true than ever in the middle of a deadly pandemic. But apart from an outmoded understanding of need, the Democrats pushing targeted relief checks are playing the conservative cultural war game and potentially alienating their own voters. Many of these voters do not fit the standard definition of “needy” but they turned out in overwhelming numbers last November and again on January 5th to get Democrats back in power. They were promised relief.