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Policy Matters

The Rare, Vital Policy That Unites the Anti-Abortion Right and the Anti-Poverty Left

A key provision in the bipartisan tax bill is creating strange bedfellows.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson
Tom Williams/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson

The bipartisan tax policy deal being debated this week in Congress has earned support from an unlikely corner: abortion opponents. Although Republicans are perhaps most excited about the tax benefits for businesses that are included in the legislation, a provision to expand the child tax credit is being hailed by many Republicans as a way to encourage low-income families to have more children—and thus, implicitly, not to have abortions.

The updated credit would not be as generous as the temporary expansion by Democrats in 2021, but it would include several key changes to make it more accessible. Republican supporters may be most enthusiastic about a provision that would phase in the credit on a “per-child” basis, allowing low-income families to receive the same credit for each of their children. Abortion opponents believe that the current structure penalizes families for having multiple children, as they would receive a lower amount of the credit for the first child than they would for the second.

Indeed, many people who seek abortions already have one or more children. In 2021, this was true of 61 percent of abortion patients. Around half of abortion patients in 2014 lived below the poverty level, and 25 percent lived at twice the poverty level or below.

“Families with three, four, five children have a lot of challenges economically, and this will give them some additional assistance,” Republican Representative Chris Smith, the co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, told me about the credit. “It’ll be when they do their taxes that they’ll see the government has their back, to some extent.” He added that with low-income families struggling with inflation, this tax change would recognize that “children should get a tax situation that’s more equitable.”

Most Democrats largely support the legislation for the simple reason that it would disproportionately help struggling parents. The bill would index the credit to inflation, increase the maximum amount, and allow taxpayers to determine their credit amount based on their income the previous year. A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the proposal could lift around 400,000 children out of poverty and raise three million closer to the poverty line; overall, the changes would benefit around 16 million low-income children.

The deal has received endorsements from several anti-abortion organizations, including Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, Students for Life Action, and the National Association of Evangelicals. It also earned the endorsement of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who included a vision of an expanded child tax credit as part of his 1994 “Contract With America,” a statement of conservative values that helped redefine the priorities of the modern Republican Party.

“Republicans have always gotten a bad rap that we’re pro-life before birth, but not pro-life after birth,” said Representative Kevin Hern, a Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “This says that we are, and that we continue to be.”

Speaker Mike Johnson, a staunch opponent of abortion who has not revealed his position on the legislation, told reporters on Tuesday that he believes the pro-life organizations that support the deal “make a good point,” adding that “we want to do well by families.” But the expansion of the credit may not go far enough for some Republicans who believe that, in order for the credit to truly be a “pro-life” policy, it should be distributed before birth. But this is politically thorny for Democrats: Distributing the credits during pregnancy could be seen as a tacit endorsement of the right’s claim that life begins before birth.

The legislation, despite passing in committee by an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin, has nonetheless earned criticism from both sides. Several Democrats argue that the expansion of the child tax credit doesn’t do enough to help low-income families. A cadre of Republicans from high-tax states have also signaled opposition to the deal—even temporarily holding up a procedural vote on another bill on Tuesday to express their ire—because it does not address the state and local tax deduction.

Meanwhile, some Republican opponents have complained that the credit would be available to the children of undocumented immigrants—even though this has always been true of the existing credit and past expansions. Other Republicans fear it would not include sufficient work incentives. One recent report by the American Enterprise Institute found that implementing the so-called “lookback” requirement—allowing a parent to calculate the credit based on their income from the previous year, even if they lost their job in the current year—could result in around 150,000 parents leaving the workforce per year.

However, a separate analysis from AEI found that the proposal “would slightly increase the returns to work and encourage individuals to enter the labor force” due to the indexing of the credit to inflation—a finding echoed by the conservative Tax Foundation. The bill would maintain eligibility requirements established by the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts, including a $2,500 income threshold.

The tax deal may pass in the House as early as this week with a wide bipartisan margin, but its prospects in the Senate are still uncertain; some Republicans on the upper chamber’s tax-writing committee have expressed skepticism.

Representative Blake Moore, another Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, called it a “significant win” to have support from pro-life groups in a bipartisan bill. But that’s not the main selling point for him. “It bucks the narrative that that issue has to be so partisan. I don’t think it does,” Moore told me. “The fact groups are behind it is awesome—but it’s not a pro-life bill, it’s a tax bill.”