Joe Biden's Stimulus: A Radical Experiment for America's Families | Opinion

Parents with young children, stuck at home without child care or viable schools, are the big winners in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package. The president's proposal, set for congressional approval this week, goes way beyond stimulus, promising to revitalize America's families and lift millions of children out of poverty. Yet there's a downside: the benefits of the president's revolutionary proposal would evaporate a year from now.

Under President Biden's proposal, families with youngsters under 6 years of age will enjoy up to $3,600 in child tax credit, raised from $2,000 yearly. Low-income parents earning too little to pay income taxes will receive a cash refund from the IRS for the first time.

Working parents would gain another $4,000 to defray the cost of child care for toddlers and preschoolers, also made refundable for low-wage workers under Mr. Biden's bold plan. These benefits would boost the take-home pay of poor families ­by 20 percent on average—while easing child-care expenses faced by middle-class parents as well. Combined, they will temporarily cut by more than one third the number of American children raised in poverty.

We expected our grandfatherly president to carefully tread a middle road. Instead, Mr. Biden's stimulus plan offers the most progressive boost in aid to young families since the Great Society. It avoids the mistakes of unguided entitlements, while borrowing policy devices from moderate Republicans.

Democrats have long dreamed of establishing an income floor for the poor, going back to Sen. George McGovern's ill-fated proposal in 1972 to send $1,000 to every family. Mr. Biden will largely achieve this aim, buoying the 11 million children living in poverty nationwide. It's an idea lent credence from small-scale trials in Stockton, California, and elsewhere, which saw sharp gains in the wellbeing of participating families.

But here's the rub: this welcome policy jolt will supercharge the nation's families for only a short time. The stimulus bill offers a Cinderella-like bargain, when families' newfound economic security disappears as the clock strikes midnight a year from now. Mr. Biden offers a massive experiment, asking whether government can elevate the well-being of poor households and dissipate the economic stress facing middling parents. The ruling party, and progressives at large, will suffer a huge setback if Mr. Biden fails.

The White House, from day one, should work with the Congress to sustain the president's initiative. Start with Senate Republicans who seek to simplify the maze of pro-family programs offered by federal and state governments—prenatal care, paid family leave, public preschools and myriad tax benefits.

US President Joe Biden speaks during International Women's Day in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on March 8, 2021. MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images

A starting point for collaboration could be Sen. Mitt Romney's proposal to consolidate existing federal efforts into an annual cash payment of $4,200 to every family with children under 18, similar to household aid commonly legislated in Europe. Romney would spend little new money, but he would radically simplify how parents access shared payments.

Mr. Biden already borrows from an earlier Republican playbook—from when moderates thrived in the GOP—relying on tax credits and portable vouchers to offset the costs of raising children. He avoids funding huge institutions or restricting the form of child care selected by parents, allowing families to opt for individual caregivers or formal pre-k centers.

Making the tandem tax benefits refundable mimics the Earned Income Tax Credit, signed into law by Republican Gerald Ford in 1975, which reduces income taxes for 24 million working-poor families.

Mr. Biden can win congressional allies by resisting the call for universal entitlements, such as free preschool for all young families, no matter how rich or poor—the favored pitch of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York mayor Bill de Blasio. My own research details how pre-k expansion in the Big Apple has inadvertently tilted higher-quality programs toward white and Asian-heritage families, as facilities and stronger teachers become regressively distributed.

Instead, Mr. Biden focuses on extending tax benefits for poor families—those the pandemic has placed in harm's way—while lowering taxes for middle-class families raising young children. Significant gains in family incomes reduce stress and conflict in poor households, and benefit early childhood learning. It's also a preventive policy that reduces downstream health and welfare costs to the government.

Finally, the White House must commission independent scholars to detect how this policy revolution touches the daily lives and wellbeing of America's families. Does rising income enrich home environments for young children? Can tax credits alone ensure that parents will find reliable, high-quality child care?

Hopefully, this unprecedented policy experiment will work. But sound research could muffle the partisan rancor that's sure to erupt when Mr. Biden returns to Congress seeking to make permanent his remarkable effort to lift all families.

Bruce Fuller is professor of education and public policy, University of California, Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.