Shrinking Biden economic plan poses an election risk in the suburbs

Mike Dorning, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

The move by Democrats to shrink President Joe Biden’s vision for the economy into a smaller package is turning to a debate over whether key benefits should be restricted to fewer, needier families — potentially blunting both their impact and political support in suburban districts that will be battlegrounds in next year’s midterm election.

The White House has indicated Biden is open to stricter income caps for some programs, and a growing number of Democrats are warming to the idea as a way to cut the price tag to meet the demands of fiscal conservatives such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both pivotal votes in the Senate.

But lawmakers representing suburban areas on the coasts, where the cost of living can leave even higher-earning families feeling financially squeezed, warn that narrowing coverage risks undermining public support for programs central to the Democratic agenda. Those include an expanded child tax credit, assistance with child care expenses and tuition-free community college.

“Many of my constituents would be considered high income in West Virginia but still struggle in Westchester and Rockland counties to afford high-quality child care and higher education,” Rep. Mondaire Jones, who represents suburban areas of New York’s Hudson Valley, said. “The federal government has historically done a bad job of defining poverty.”

To fit what started out as a $3.5 trillion package of taxes and spending into a framework of roughly $2 trillion, Democrats are mostly working with options that include eliminating components. One example: jettisoning a plan championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders to add hearing, dental and vision benefits to Medicare.

Delaying programs or having them expire early and reducing benefit levels are other options. Lawmakers also can restrict who is eligible for new or expanded benefits.


Manchin has focused on means testing — limiting benefits to people whose incomes are below a certain level — and work requirements, saying the country must avoid “an entitlement mentality.” He also is seeking to cut some programs as he tries to reduce the cost of the economic package down to $1.5 trillion.

The struggle reprises a long-standing tension among advocates of social benefits between helping those most in need and more broadly supporting Americans as they confront financial stresses. Universal entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are among the costliest government benefits, but politically sacrosanct because of their reach across society. Other assistance — such a food stamps and Pell Grants for college — are limited to poorer Americans, and historically have faced battles for funding.

The conflict can supersede ideological divisions within the Democratic party. The Congressional Progressive Caucus joined with swing-district colleagues including New Jersey’s Rep. Mikie Sherrill — who in 2018 became the first Democrat in more than three decades elected to represent her affluent suburban constituency outside New York City — to lift an income ceiling on the Democratic plan’s child-care benefit.

The divisions reflect differences in the economic circumstances at home. In West Virginia, fewer than 10% of households had incomes above $100,000 in 2019, according to a U.S Census survey. In New Jersey, more than a quarter did, and the portion is higher still in the suburban regions surrounding New York and Philadelphia.


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