Opinion | Sure, Biden’s Plan Costs a Lot of Money. But the Price of Inaction Is Higher.

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By Bryce Covert

Ms. Covert is a journalist who focuses on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families.

At the beginning of the year, Democrats knew they had a rare opportunity to make transformational change. With control of the White House and Congress, they stuffed ambitious programs meant to address decades of inaction on child care, paid leave, poverty, housing, the climate — and to cover holes in our health care system — into a single package.

Those dreams have run aground on a few holdout Democratic lawmakers. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have insisted on skimpy spending numbers, even if the spending is offset by higher revenues. Mr. Manchin is forcing excruciating decisions between Democratic priorities, but he insists that it’s in the name of fiscal responsibility, of not incurring too great a cost for the government.

When President Biden released a sharply pared down framework meant to appease the centrists, Mr. Manchin refused to sign off because he’s worried about “the impact it will have on our national debt, our economy and the American people.” Now Mr. Manchin is signaling that he wants to slow walk his party’s legislative package because of increasing inflation — even though the spending will be doled out over a decade and will have no impact on price increases today, while it will eventually help ease household budget crunches.

What Mr. Manchin fails to understand is that we have been enduring enormous costs from our failure to do these things and will continue to incur them if we don’t do enough to meet this moment. The pain is borne by individual Americans who struggle to flourish and stay healthy. But every single one of us suffers from an enfeebled economy and a poorly functioning society.

Inaction comes with its own price. We pay it in the form of forgone human potential. We pay it in the form of lower productivity and a smaller work force, of an economy failing to function at its full capacity. And we also pay for it in human lives. These are very real consequences. To ignore this side of the ledger and focus solely on how much is being spent is, at the very least, ignorant, and at worst, cruel.

The United States has an exceptionally high childhood poverty rate. By failing to offer parents more support in the early years, we pay a huge penalty. Robust economic research has found that giving children more resources when they’re young results in fewer infant deaths, improved health, longer lives, less interaction with the criminal justice system and higher earnings. Those outcomes are vitally important in each individual child’s life, but they’re also important for everyone — the whole economy reaps the benefit of less spending on medical care and higher tax payments from healthier, more productive people.

The opposite, of course, is also true. If we fail to give children the resources they need to thrive, then we incur the costs through poorer health and reduced potential. Children bear the burden of lower income and shortened lives. Even tinkering with the current expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which right now is sending nearly all parents monthly payments of $300 for children under age 6 and $250 for older ones through the end of the year, quickly exposes more kids to these harms.

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