A Catholic Argument for CTC Expansion: Combatting “Anti-Work” Rhetoric

Allison Baroni
August 23, 2021

On July 14, Senator Marco Rubio released a statement denouncing the recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit. In it, he states that while he has always supported CTC expansion for “hardworking families” the recent expansion “has transformed the pro-worker, pro-family Child Tax Credit into an anti-work welfare check.” This echoes rhetoric deployed during the 1990s welfare reform movement, which culminated in the controversial 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act. Presented as an attempt reduce poverty while cutting costs, the bipartisan legislation has had devastating consequences for many of those experiencing deep poverty in the United States. By deploying this language now, Rubio reveals the continued insistence of some members of Congress to lean on self-righteous and inaccurate depictions of poverty to pass a self-serving agenda that perpetuates injustice.

A Long GOP Tradition of Putting Profit over People

Republican critiques of Democratic programs and policies as being “anti-work” are nothing new. Following in the wake of President Regan, an increasing number of politicians and constituents expressed concern for the number of people receiving money from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, as well as the aspects of the program that encouraged people to remain on the funding rather than finding a job. Dylan Matthews did an excellent deep dive into the complexities of this issue (as well as the results of the 1996 “reform”) but suffice it to say that there were issues with the program. Many who received the aid wanted to work, but to do so would cost them more financially than to remain on it. This stemmed from the program’s sexist and racist roots: FDR created the AFDC during the Great Depression to support single, white mothers, ensuring they did not have to work. The program was designed to disincentivize work to uphold white male assumptions of white womanhood. Rather than take an antiracist and feminist approach to reforming the AFDC, ensuring that all people had the financial ability to get a job should they want one, politicians simply linked access to government support to work status, and left the rest to the markets.

This had devastating results. While at first the program, cast as an attempt at poverty reduction, appeared to succeed, recent data tells a significantly different story. Additionally, in a study done of data from a 2012 Survey of Income and Program participation, University of Michigan’s Luke Shaefer and Johns Hopkins Kathryn Edin found that “‘the percentage growth in extreme poverty over our study period was greatest among vulnerable groups who were most likely to be impacted by the 1996 welfare reform,[1]’” and “households headed by single women saw a larger increase in extreme poverty. Households with children (the only ones eligible for AFDC) saw an increase more than twice as large as the one households without children experienced.[2]” In other words, those most in need were left without government support, and children were the most directly impacted. NETWORK also conducted several studies over the years looking at the harmful impact of these reforms.  

Our Faith Calls Us to Alleviate Poverty

This did not need to happen. Pope Francis once said, “the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith” (Fratelli Tutti 168). Very few people want to hear that, but if Senator Rubio’s words are any indication, we all need to. And as usual, our faith traditions have something to offer us as we look for direction. For Catholics such as myself and Senator Rubio, the Pope gives us a clear message: we cannot afford to turn the marketplace, turn work and productivity, into a false god. Not only for the sake of our country, but for the sake of our souls. If we want to be faithful to our tradition, if we want to alleviate poverty, we must do better. Our politics must do better. To quote again from the Pope:

“Here I would once more observe that ‘politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy’ [158]…instead, ‘what is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis’ [160]. In other words, a ‘healthy politics…capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia’ [161]. We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state” (Fratelli Tutti 177).

The Courage to Act for the Common Good

In our world, living such a political agenda would take great courage, a virtue in the Catholic tradition that Fr. Bryan Massingale has suggested is “perhaps the least studied of the virtues.” Yet, “Thomas Aquinas taught us that courage is the precondition of all virtue. Without courage, we’re not able to be prudent. We’re not able to be just, because courage is the virtue that allows us to surmount the fear that comes with following the Gospel.[3]

Our nation deserves politicians with courage. We deserve a society build on courage. As Catholics, we too often praise the courage of those who came before us but forget that God extends to us the same grace he did to them. If we allow the Spirit to move us, we can be as courageous as St. Mary Magdalene or St. Peter, as Dorothy Day or St. Oscar Romero. We can be courageous enough to let go of our false gods and build a new world, to reject rhetoric that encourages us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

For this is what happens when we are encouraged to place limits upon who is deserving of financial assistance. Perhaps the most insidious belief behind attacks on the CTC, behind demands that it only be given to “hardworking families,” is that it places preconditions on the right to have one’s basic needs met. Catholics in Congress need to remember that this is not what our faith teaches us, for not only does “every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally,” but “people have this right even if they are unproductive…” (Fratelli Tutti 107).

[1] https://www.vox.com/2016/6/20/11789988/clintons-welfare-reform

[2] https://www.vox.com/2016/6/20/11789988/clintons-welfare-reform

[3] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/worship-false-god

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