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Shar Habibi is research and policy director of In the Public Interest. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
You wouldn’t know it from watching the news, but American children are doing better than they were at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least when it comes to having their basic needs met.
That’s according to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Even as the country suffered through a pandemic, global supply chain disruptions and rising inflation, child poverty rates declined to the lowest on record. As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy concluded, much of this can be attributed to last year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit.
The child tax credit expansion ended at the beginning of this year. Now some elected leaders are proposing to reinstate the expanded tax credit and, unfortunately, fund it by cutting important tax benefits for low- and moderate-income families rather than making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.
Regardless of what decision Congress makes, the success of the expansion highlights something else you wouldn’t know from watching the news: The federal government has demonstrably improved the lives of the vast majority of Americans over the last year and a half.
Whether it’s $350 billion in budget relief for state and local governments or $1.2 trillion to fix the country’s crumbling infrastructure, Washington has repeatedly stepped up to the plate and delivered. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, for example, caps prescription drug prices for seniors and offers savings on energy bills, among other policies that will likely lower the rising cost of living.
What all that investment looks like across the country depends on the priorities of the state or local government.
Minnesota is addressing learning disruptions experienced by students during the pandemic. The past two summers, the state’s children have had more opportunities for field trips, preschool programming, mental health services and tutoring. In Ohio, Cleveland’s school district used American Rescue Plan funds to increase summer learning participation sevenfold.
Arkansas just committed $280 million in American Rescue Plan funds for infrastructure projects that will upgrade the state’s outdated and failing water systems. These types of investments are especially important, given ongoing water crises in places like Jackson, Mississippi.
Wisconsin used federal money to strengthen its Worker Advancement Initiative, offering subsidized employment and skills training opportunities with local employers to unemployed workers. Federal support for similar programs nationwide surely has something to do with the economy’s historically low unemployment rate.
To be sure, some states and localities have spent relief funds in ways that do not actually improve the lives of average Americans. At least 21 states used the money to replenish unemployment insurance funding, which — as the Economic Policy Institute notes — has little impact on economic growth and effectively amounts to a tax cut for corporations. Some local governments are even using funding to build and expand jails and prisons, rather than invest in education, affordable housing, job programs or other programs that address the root causes of crime.
No public program — like no corporate initiative — is perfect, but there are plenty of things happening nationwide that will benefit Americans.
When it comes to infrastructure, more than 5,000 projects backed with new federal money are already underway. Residents in states including California and Texas are accessing high-speed broadband internet access for the first time. State transportation officials are improving and expanding roadways, such as Pennsylvania’s project to connect an unfinished rural highway with Maryland. The U.S. Forest Service is planting trees in areas burned by forest fires in the largest reforestation drive in the U.S. since the 1930s.
All of this counters a common attitude that the government is incompetent and that government programs make us less free. Certainly, things like corruption and over-policing can happen when public institutions are captured by the powerful few. But the last few years have shown what is possible when we make government work for us.
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