Why This Matters: Policy Feedback in the Pandemic: Lessons from Three Key Policies

October 26, 2023

In 2022, the child poverty rate more than doubled, from 5.2 percent to 12.4 percent, marking the first increase in child poverty since 2010. This came after the American Rescue Plan Act’s (ARPA) fully refundable, expanded child tax credit (CTC) expired at the end of 2021. Before its lapse, the expanded CTC reached approximately 62 million children, cutting the child poverty rate by an astounding 46 percent and bringing the figure to its lowest rate on record. Advocates pushed for permanent expansion of the policy, with hopes that its efficacy had fueled such mass support that its abandonment would be politically untenable. But these efforts ultimately fell short in the face of conservative opposition. How did such an effective policy fail to garner the political support necessary for its renewal?

In a new Roosevelt Institute report, professor of government and public policy Jamila Michener explores the feedback dynamics of the CTC, along with two other important pandemic-era policies: emergency rental assistance and student debt relief, including both the recently ended pause and ultimately thwarted cancellation effort. Policy feedback theory is the idea that “new policies create new politics,” which can in turn influence future policy decisions. Under this framework, policies are not merely products of the political process, but also important inputs that can shape future political possibilities.

Michener argues that the fate of the CTC can be explained by feedback theory. Moreover, looking closely at the way each of the three policies created—or failed to create—feedback loops can bring new insight to how feedback loops work.

As Michener explains in her report, the positive policy feedback effects of the expanded CTC were relatively weak. She posits that this is partly attributable to the target population of the expanded CTC. Scholars contend that the target populations of a policy are important in shaping the political effects of a policy. Populations that are viewed more favorably and that have greater political power are more likely to generate positive feedback effects, compared to those that are construed negatively and hold less political power.

Michener explains that the ARPA’s expansion of the CTC broadened the policy’s target population to include more people living in poverty and middle- and even high-income families—the latter two groups being more “positively construed” and more “politically powerful” than the policy’s typical low-income target population. And yet including these more “positively construed” and more “politically powerful” groups in the expanded CTC’s target population did not lead to permanent expansion. As Michener writes,

This points to the limits of simply expanding policy benefits to include positively constructed and ostensibly more powerful target populations (e.g., “the middle class”) in hopes that such groups might affirmatively influence the destiny of a policy. The political potential of such expansions is unlikely to materialize in the absence of strategic efforts among civil society and movement groups to mobilize and organize the populations that benefit from policy (Goss, Barnes, and Rose 2019).

To be sure, advocates did diligently organize to make the expansion permanent. And Michener notes that these efforts may be helpful to future attempts at building the political power needed to permanently expand the CTC. But with only a year to build broad political support, there simply wasn’t enough time to do the deep, multi-coordinated, and long-term organizing a policy at this scale required. Moreover, beneficiaries themselves received CTC payments for less than a year, through an improved but still exclusionary and inequitable distribution system and during a time of intense and widespread collective anxiety. These realities made it even less likely that sufficient support would be generated to overcome opposition to the policy’s permanent expansion.

Now, nearly two years after its expiration, the policy feedback dynamics surrounding the expanded CTC help contextualize how, in the wealthiest nation in the world, more than five million children slipped into poverty within the span of a single year. The political defeat of the expanded CTC signals the importance of taking a strategic, multipronged approach to political change—one in which policymakers are astutely keyed into the possibilities for feedback, take action to limit negative feedback that erodes democratic participation, and advance positive feedback that fosters political change toward an equitable, multiracial democracy and economy.