Since 1975, politicians have built huge portions of the American safety net — like the child tax credit (CTC) — around the idea that excluding the poorest Americans from government assistance will motivate them to climb out of deep poverty on their own and get a job.
This long-standing bipartisan consensus is manifest in the twin ideas of work and income requirements. Work requirements are simple: You either have a job or you don’t, and that binary is what determines whether you’re eligible for a handful of welfare programs.
Income requirements are a little wonkier. They stipulate that anyone without any income will receive no benefits. Only after earned income surpasses a specified level do benefits begin kicking in — which is where we get another dry name: “phase-ins.”
In practice, benefitting from programs with income requirements is conditional on already having a job. If you’re unemployed and have no other income, you’re out of luck. In the CTC, phase-ins exclude some 19 million children whose parents don’t have enough income to meet the requirement for receiving the full benefit, while the US retains some of the highest child poverty and mortality rates among peer countries.