Like basically every presidential candidate in the last 50 years, Joe Biden talked a big game about boosting the middle class during his campaign. But many of the programs his administration has proposed to give the extra help that most Americans need to survive or thrive are the ones centrist Democrats have forced onto the chopping block.
Unequal wage growth has left the average worker’s paycheck today with the same purchasing power as the average worker 40 years ago, even as the price of everything has gone up. Meanwhile, attending college is almost three times as expensive — even as more jobs require some form of secondary education. Housing prices continue to rise, but potential buyers struggle to find places they can afford. And the U.S. remains the only country in the industrialized world to offer zero guaranteed paid time off to workers for medical or parental leave.
The Build Back Better Act is built on Biden’s two major policy proposals: the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out,” Biden told a joint session of Congress in April. Among the highlights was a promise to pay for two-year community college programs and 12 weeks of paid medical leave. He also urged Congress to extend its one-year expansion of the child tax credit through 2025.
While the media has focused on the Senate’s negotiations, the House has had the lead in drafting the legislation that will be passed through budget reconciliation.
Here’s some of what the House’s various committees recommended go into that package.
Revitalizing public housing
Over the next 10 years, $80 billion would be invested in “public housing preservation and creation, improvements to energy and water efficiency or climate resilience, or removal of health and safety hazards in public housing,” per the House Financial Services Committee’s recommendations.
Boosting affordable housing
Another $9 billion would go toward a new Housing Investment Fund, which would help community developers and nonprofit organizations construct and finance mortgages for new affordable housing for “low, very low-, and extremely low-income families.” Another $10 billion would go toward a “First-Generation Downpayment Assistance Program” to help finance purchases for people who are the first in their families to buy a home.
Child tax credit expansion
As passed by the House Ways and Means Committee, the current benefit — which provides monthly benefits of up to $300 per child to parents — would be extended through the end of 2025. Even after the current expansion phases out, though, the tax credit would remain fully refundable permanently.
Paid family leave
Ways and means also recommended setting up a new benefit under the Social Security Act to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. It would be paid out to people who currently qualify for unpaid leave to “address a serious personal or family health issue; to care for a newborn, newly adopted child, or new foster child; or for circumstances arising from a loved one’s military deployment or serious injury.” It would also cover all workers, including part-time and gig workers, and expand the types of family relationships that qualify for caregiving.
Free community college
Students eligible to enroll at an in-state community college would have their tuition covered for up to six semesters under the legislation passed through the House Education and Labor Committee. The program would cost an estimated $45 billion over the five years the program would be in place.
Investing in HBCUs
Education and labor recommended allocating $27.5 billion over the next decade to reduce tuition costs for low-income students at historically Black colleges and universities. The recommendation also includes $3.45 billion in appropriations for institutional aids and investments over four years, which is way lower than the $55 billion Biden pitched.
Increasing federal student aid
Finally, the bill would boost Pell Grants for low-income college students by $500. It would also, for the first time, make people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status eligible for federal financial aid, including subsidized loans and Pell Grants.
As centrist Democrats try to whittle away at the price tag of $3.5 trillion over 10 years, Democratic leadership is left scrambling to determine which programs to cut. Just this week, in a meeting with progressives, Biden laid out some of the potential compromises on the table.
Those include a suggestion that paid family leave could be reduced from 12 weeks down to four. Free community college is also apparently set to be cut, potentially to be replaced with “community college scholarships,” according to CNN’s Manu Raju.
Politicians love to talk big about how much they love the middle class.
Biden also floated that the child tax credit only be extended for one more year, a suggestion that has key Democrats in the House balking. On the Senate side, progressives like Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, are trying to dissuade Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., from demanding major changes to the credit. Manchin wants to include new work requirements for recipients and cap household income at $60,000, cutting off a lot of the middle-class families this credit benefits.
Meanwhile, House Financial Services Chair Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is worried that many of her housing initiatives will be stripped from the final bill. She and Brown, who is working on the Senate version of Waters’ provisions, told The New York Times they “would not accept any deal that cuts the housing plan more than any other proposal.”
Politicians love to talk big about how much they love the middle class. This is a potentially once-in-a-generation chance for Democrats to — quite literally — put their money where their mouth is. One of the most important aspects of the provisions in question is that they help most Americans who really just need a boost to get ahead. In attempting to narrow the focus to only the poorest Americans, add hurdles through means-testing and reduce the overall price tag, Democrats run the risk of alienating the voters who are left out and further stigmatizing federal assistance.
I accept the reality that some items are going to have to go. What I reject is the idea that backtracking on their promises is going to do much to boost Democrats in the eyes of their base, let alone the independent voters of America.