Mitt Romney recently proposed a plan for child care benefits that received a ton of positive attention – the quest for Good Republicans never rests – for being even more generous than the one Biden proposed. That's true only by some measures, and depending on which part of the benefit you decide is most important the Biden plan could be superior.
As is always the case with these things, Romney's proposal came with some pretty substantial fine print. The apparently generous plan would come at the expense of eliminating TANF and other direct-assistance programs aimed at the poor. This is a similar problem to Andrew Yang's early UBI proposals, which seemed like a great cash benefit until you realized it would replace, not be added to, almost every other social welfare program. So you're likely to be losing money overall. These details, even when they're not enormously complex, are hard for people to process. People like simple programs that are easy to understand.
In my view there is one and only one way in which the Romney plan is better, but it's crucial: he proposes administering the program through the Social Security Administration, whereas Biden's proposal, as is typical, would be through the IRS.
This has been an enormous problem for Democrats, I think, since the 1980s: all social and public policy must go through the tax code. There is a tactical reason for doing it that way, since it allows social policy to be framed as "tax cuts," and everybody likes tax cuts. Or at least things are harder for conservatives to attack if it can be framed as "tax relief for our hardest working blah blah blah."
Here's the problem, though: very few people are attentive enough to really grasp that a policy represents the government handing them a big pile of money when it happens via the annual filing of tax returns. This means that millions of people benefit from social welfare programs without realizing that they are benefitting from social welfare programs.
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How many homeowners really deduct their mortgage interest and property taxes from their income – saving themselves hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process – and think, "Wow, the United States Treasury just gave me ($500, $1000, whatever)?"
Nobody does. That is why for decades middle-class subsidies such as that have not been perceived as handouts, which they are. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is the same; it provides tons of assistance to millions of people, none of whom really grasp "The EITC gave me $2000 this year" or whatnot. When people get money refunded to them at tax time, it's likely to be mentally processed as "I overpaid the damn government and now they owe me some of my money back."
Instead, imagine that the property tax and mortgage interest deductions, as well as the EITC, were replaced with an envelope that arrived on the 15th of every month with a stack of $100 bills and a letter reading, "Here is your payment for the (insert name here) benefit which Congress has appropriated for you under (law). This is a benefit. It is intended to alleviate the costs of (child care, home ownership, etc)."
Try that and tell me it wouldn't make people feel differently over five or ten years than the standard byzantine process of filing a tax return and the black box spitting out a refund (or asking for more). When a person gets an annual tax refund it isn't immediately clear what that money represents – I must have overpaid! – and lacks a connection to any specific program or policy. Whatever Congress eventually decides to do to provide a child care benefit, people must be made unambiguously certain that they are receiving a child care benefit to the tune of $3000 per year or whatever. Maybe that feels crass to you, instinctively, and your instinct is to say "Taking credit for helping doesn't matter, as long as they are helped."
But providing this kind of stealth social welfare is a big part of how readily Americans are hypocrites on that issue, slamming "welfare" and the government taking from Me to hand the money to Thee. Rebuilding faith in government and the social welfare state is going to begin with the very simplest step of making sure people are made aware of how much the government is already giving them, and doing for them. You will never convince everyone with that tactic, of course. Some people will still say "Bullshit, it's my money anyway until you stole it from me." But there are a lot of people out there benefitting from programs that they simply don't perceive as welfare policies that put money in their pocket.
Social policy AS SOCIAL POLICY, not disguised as tax policy, needs to make a comeback.
I'm frankly stunned that Mitt Romney would be the person to propose such a thing, but whether or not he realizes that avoiding the IRS is consequential it very much is. Programs like Social Security and Medicare endure because enough people like them, and people like them because it is immediately and directly obvious what Social Security and Medicare give them. When people can see the benefits they will fight to keep them. When it's all invisible and in the background and feels like little more than a number punched into TurboTax, they won't. They'll continue to benefit while perceiving themselves solely as payers and never as the payee.