Ideas From The Right: An Exclusive Interview with AEI Scholar Michael Strain

This issue is the latest in our new commentary series, “Ideas From The Right: Conservative Approaches to Tax Credits for Working Families.”

For this issue, Tax Credits for Working Families director Lauren Pescatore sat down with Michael Strain, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of Room To Grow, a collection of essays from conservative thought leaders on policies to strengthen the middle class. Mr. Strain’s responses have been edited for brevity.

In Room to Grow, you propose expanding the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers. Why the focus on this particular demographic?

The EITC is significantly more generous for families with children. In 2014, a childless worker would get less than a $500 credit at most, but a worker with three or more children would get a little over $6,000. That’s a massive gap. I think there are a lot of reasons we should want to provide more help to workers with children. But I think that gap is too big.

We also need to increase employment rates among young men, and so many of these childless workers are male. The EITC provides an incentive for them to find work and stay employed.

How does increasing the EITC help policymakers advance conservative goals?

I think you could certainly find some debate about this among conservatives. I personally think of conservativism as championing individual responsibility, as opposed to dependency. Conservativism places a uniquely strong emphasis on working, on earned success and rewarding those who contribute to the broader society through their work. The EITC does exactly that – it provides incentives for people to work, and it provides financial assistance to people who are working to help pay the bills and make ends meet.

I think it’s a great policy tool for advancing conservative goals.

How would you suggest funding an increased EITC for childless workers?

I wrote an essay for The National Review where I suggested that we fund it by closing some tax expenditures that primarily benefit the wealthy, like the mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction. We could redirect some of the money we spend on the richest 20 percent of workers and spend it instead on the poorest 20 percent. Spending money on the poor rather than on the rich aligns well with many conservative principles.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s poverty plan includes a very similar proposal – to expand the EITC for childless workers, only he would fund the increase in part by eliminating certain welfare programs. Do you think your recommendation for funding the increase has a better chance of garnering bipartisan support?

What Mr. Ryan is suggesting is also a good idea. A lot of the programs that he suggests eliminating are what I’d call “nickel and dime” programs. They’re not really helping. Using that money to instead expand the EITC is a good idea. My funding proposal and Mr. Ryan’s are just different ways to achieve the same goal.

Which do I think has a better shot at passing Congress? I don’t know. There are strong constituencies on either side.

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne recently referred to support for an increased EITC for childless workers as “plain vanilla bipartisanship.” Do you agree with him? Realistically, what do you think the chances are of such a proposal becoming law?

If you were to ask all of the Republicans in the House and the Senate, “How many of you fully support expanding the EITC?,” I think you would find that many do not. In that sense, it’s not plain vanilla bipartisanship.

On the other hand – Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio – two of the most ambitious, most prominent members of the Republican Party in Congress have both come out in favor of an expanded EITC, or, in Rubio’s case, something similar. That, to me, suggests that this is a bipartisan issue. If they can get their respective chambers on board for an increased credit, they can get it done.