When the most recent COVID-19 stimulus package passed in the Senate on Saturday, it did so without even one Republican vote. It seemed all but certain the same would be true when the House of Representatives took up the measure on Wednesday. “It was still stuffed full of non-COVID related spending,” Sen. Jodi Ernst, R-Iowa, said via a statement, explaining her thumbs down.
Fact check: True. The $1.9 trillion stimulus was the most progressive legislation signed into law in more than a decade, a Democratic assertion of the importance of big government in helping people break free of poverty, both in a time of covid-19 and in the future beyond. Three cheers for the Democrats, who are finally responding to a crisis with the appropriate aggressive forward movement.
But that success puts Republicans in a tough spot. Because Americans, you see, want more.
Don’t take it from me. That’s the takeaway from a report issued by the Center for American Progress and made exclusively available to The Washington Post. A majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans — yes, Republicans! — say they want to increase spending by $1 trillion: on infrastructure such as bridges and roads; on a permanent policy of paid guaranteed sick leave for all workers; on paid family and medical leave for workers with a newborn child or who need to deal with an illness.
And when it comes to children, a majority of Americans support both an expansion of tax credits for families with young children and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. (Both of these are in the current aid package, but they sunset after a year.)
“People by and large, across partisan and most demographic lines, strongly support at least an essential role for the federal government in making sure people have access to basic housing, education, health care and food,” John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a co-author of the report, told me.
This is not a sudden movement. A report by the center unearthed similar findings in 2019. I wrote about it at the time, noting that Americans were more unified than it seemed on supporting government aid. But in many cases, the support has increased since then. In 2021, for instance, a majority of Republicans — 54% — said they believed many people lived in poverty because jobs do not pay enough or housing is too expensive. That’s a significant increase from 2019, when only 43% of them agreed with a similar statement.
When Halpin conducts focus groups, he says he finds over and over again that people say either they or people they know benefited from government aid, even as they say they still believe others do take advantage of the programs. “What we see is the challenges of the American economy are hitting a lot more people,” he said. “Consequently, they’re willing to support pretty strong measures by the government to help low-income people.”
Halpin attributes this change, in part, to the impact of the pandemic. “It’s probably not lost on people that there were 2-mile-long backups at food banks in the pandemic,” he told me. In fact, the Center for American Progress survey showed that 4 in 10 of those surveyed are either receiving some form of government assistance or are aware of family members who are doing so. “In the poverty framing, at least people are more willing to consider large-scale changes than just reverting to the status quo,” Halpin notes.
That’s not to say Republicans are fully mind-melding with Democrats. A large majority oppose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and also continue to agree that welfare programs can trap people in poverty because they encourage dependence.
But the larger takeaway remains. These findings call out Republican opposition to spending on people in need of help for what it is: mean-spirited. In fact, it is so unpopular that Republicans holding elected office are thwarting the wishes of a majority of their own voters by coming out against it.
That’s something President Joe Biden and Democrats need to hammer home over and over again.
Helaine Olen is the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry” and on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.