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How Shifting Politics Re-energized the Fight Against Poverty

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WASHINGTON — A quarter-century ago, a Democratic president celebrated “the end of welfare as we know it,” challenging the poor to exercise “independence” and espousing balanced budgets and smaller government.

The Democratic Party capped a march in the opposite direction this week.

Its first major legislative act under President Biden was a deficit-financed, $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” filled with programs as broad as expanded aid to nearly every family with children and as targeted as payments to Black farmers. While providing an array of benefits to the middle class, it is also a poverty-fighting initiative of potentially historic proportions, delivering more immediate cash assistance to families at the bottom of the income scale than any federal legislation since at least the New Deal.

Behind that shift is a realignment of economic, political and social forces, some decades in the making and others accelerated by the pandemic, that enabled a rapid advance in progressive priorities.

Rising inequality and stagnant incomes over much of the past two decades left a growing share of Americans — of all races, in conservative states and liberal ones, in inner cities and small towns — concerned about making ends meet. New research documented the long-term damage from child poverty.

An energized progressive vanguard pulled the Democrats leftward, not least Mr. Biden, who had campaigned as a moderating force.

Concerns about deficit spending receded under Mr. Biden’s Republican predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, while populist strains in both parties led lawmakers to pay more attention to the frustrations of people struggling to get by — a development intensified by a pandemic recession that overwhelmingly hurt low-income workers and spared higher earners.

A summer of protests against racial injustice, and a coalition led by Black voters that lifted Mr. Biden to the White House and helped give Democrats control of the Senate, put economic equity at the forefront of the new administration’s agenda.

Whether the new law is a one-off culmination of those forces, or a down payment on even more ambitious efforts to address the nation’s challenges of poverty and opportunity, will be a defining battle for Democrats in the Biden era.

In addition to trying to make permanent some of the temporary provisions in the package, Democrats hope to spend trillions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure, reduce the emissions that drive climate change, reduce the cost of college and child care, expand health coverage and guarantee paid leave and higher wages for workers.

The new Democratic stance is “a long cry from the days of ‘big government is over,’” said Margaret Weir, a political scientist at Brown University.

In the eyes of its backers, the law is not just one of the most far-reaching packages of economic and social policy in a generation. It is also, they say, the beginning of an opportunity for Democrats to unite a new majority in a deeply polarized country, built around a renewed belief in government.

“Next to civil rights, voting rights and open housing in the ’60s, and maybe next to the Affordable Care Act — maybe — this is the biggest thing Congress has done since the New Deal,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and a longtime champion of the antipoverty efforts included in Mr. Biden’s plan.

“People more and more realize that government can be on their side,” he said, “and now it is.”

Conservatives are hardly giving up the battle over what some call a giant welfare expansion. Democrats face high hurdles to any further ambitious legislation, starting with the Senate filibuster, which requires most legislation to get 60 votes, and the precarious nature of the party’s Senate majority. Moderate Democrats are already resisting further growth of the budget deficit.

But emboldened by the crisis, many Democrats see a new opportunity to use government to address big problems.

In addition to the new legislation being broadly popular with voters, an intensified focus on worker struggles on both the left and the right, including Republicans’ increasing efforts to define themselves as a party of the working class, has scrambled the politics of economic policy across the ideological spectrum.

Mr. Biden ran as a centrist in a Democratic Party where many activists had embraced progressive candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But he will spend the coming weeks traveling the country to promote policies like his expansion of the child tax credit, a one-year, $100-billion benefit that most Democrats hope to turn into what was once a distant progressive dream: guaranteed income for families with children.

Republicans have struggled to attack the full range of policies contained in Mr. Biden’s rescue plan, especially those like direct payments of up to $1,400 per person and expanded health care subsidies that benefit many of their constituents. Party leaders are trying to change the subject to issues like immigration.

A Republican National Committee news release this week denounced the rescue plan’s expansion of the national debt, its funding for liberal states and cities like San Francisco and $1.7 billion in aid to Amtrak, but made no mention of the expanded child tax credit that will provide most families with monthly payments of up to $300 per child.

Some prominent conservatives have welcomed the antipoverty provisions, applauding them as pro-family even though they violate core tenets of the Republican Party’s decades-long position that government aid is a disincentive to work.

Many Republicans from conservative-leaning states have turned increased attention to growing social problems in their own backyards, in the middle of an opioid crisis and economic stagnation that has left rural Americans with higher poverty rates than urban Americans, particularly for children.

An emerging strain of conservatism, often supported by a new generation of economic thinkers, has embraced expanded spending for families with children, to help lower-income workers and, in some cases, to encourage families to have more children. The conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt celebrated the expanded child credit in a series of Twitter posts on Friday, urging parents to use the proceeds to send their children to parochial school, and said he would work to make them permanent.

Still, the law could provoke a Tea Party-style backlash of the sort generated by the Obama administration’s efforts to jolt the economy back to health in 2009.

“They snuck it through and voters don’t know what they’re doing,” said Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation, an influential adviser to Capitol Hill Republicans.

“The battle has yet to be joined,” said Mickey Kaus, a journalist whose criticisms of unconditional cash benefits to the poor helped shape the welfare overhaul under President Bill Clinton.

Democrats say Mr. Biden has laid the groundwork for a durable victory by creating programs that help not just the very poor, but also lower- and middle-class workers.

The package is projected to deliver thousands of dollars in benefits to families of all races, potentially neutralizing a long history of white voters souring on spending they perceive to be targeted to racial minorities.

The rescue plan, which Mr. Biden signed into law on Thursday, features other temporary measures meant to help Americans with no or little income. They include extended and expanded unemployment benefits, increased tax breaks for child care costs and an enlarged earned-income tax credit.

Mr. Biden’s antipoverty efforts, which researchers say will lift nearly six million children out of poverty, “came to be part of the package because families that earn in the bottom third of the income distribution, or at least of the wage distribution, have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic,” said Cecilia Rouse, the chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Democrats and poverty researchers began laying the groundwork for many of those provisions years ago, amid economic changes that exposed holes in the safety net. When a 2015 book by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, “$2.00 a Day,” argued that rising numbers of families spent months with virtually no cash income, Mr. Brown arranged for all his Democratic Senate colleagues to receive a copy.

At the same time, many scholars shifted their focus from whether government benefits discouraged parents from working to whether the vagaries of a low-wage labor market left parents with adequate money to raise a child.

A growing body of academic research, which Obama administration officials began to herald shortly before leaving office, showed that a large proportion of children spent part of their childhood below the poverty line and that even short episodes of poverty left children less likely to prosper as adults. A landmark report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2019 found that aid programs left children better off.

“That allowed us to change the conversation,” away from the dangers of dependency “to the good these programs do,” said Hilary W. Hoynes, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who served on the committee that wrote the report.

By last summer, it became clear the pandemic’s toll was falling most heavily on disadvantaged workers, especially Black and Latino people, and Mr. Trump, who earlier had run up the deficit with a big tax cut, had joined both parties in Congress in adding trillions of dollars in federal debt to send out economic relief.

Racial protests over the summer further increased the pressure for government help. “Just as the civil rights movement pushed Johnson, this movement is pushing Biden,” said Sidney M. Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who studies the relationship between presidents and grass-roots movements.

While the expanded child tax credit would reach 93 percent of children, it would have its greatest effects on people of color. Analysts at Columbia University estimated the child benefit would cut child poverty from prepandemic levels among whites by 39 percent, Latinos by 45 percent and African-Americans by 52 percent.

“Covid exposed the fissures of systemic racism and systemic poverty that already existed,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, who helps run the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to get the needy more involved in electoral politics. “It forced a deeper conversation about poverty and wages in this country.”

White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress say Mr. Biden’s rescue plan has now changed that conversation, creating momentum for permanent expansions of many of its antipoverty efforts. Multiple researchers project the bill will cut child poverty in half this year.

Democrats say they will turn that into an argument against Republicans who might oppose making the benefits permanent. “You’re voting for doubling the child poverty rate — you’re going to do that?” Mr. Brown said.

In selling the plan, Mr. Biden has blurred the lines between the poor and the middle class, treating them less as distinct groups with separate problems than as overlapping and shifting populations of people who were struggling with economic insecurity even before the pandemic. Last week, he at once talked of “millions of people out of work through no fault of their own” and cited the benefits his plan would bring to families with annual incomes of $100,000.

“This is part of why I think it is more transformational,” said Brian Deese, who heads Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council. “This is not just a targeted antipoverty program.”

In coming months, Democrats will face significant hurdles in making provisions like the child benefit permanent, including pressure from fiscal hawks to offset them by raising taxes or cutting other spending.

But the swift passage of even the temporary provisions has left many antipoverty experts delighted.

“A year ago, I would have said it was a pipe dream,” said Stacy Taylor, who tracks poverty policy for Fresh EBT by Propel, a phone application used by millions of food stamp recipients. “I can’t believe we’re going to have a guaranteed income for families with children.”



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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”

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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.

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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.

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