Countering the Minimum Wage With More Help For “Lucky Duckies”

One of the key contributors and promoters of the “reform conservative” cause (and the new “manifesto” Room to Grow), Ramesh Ponnuru, has a Bloomberg View column making the fairly obvious suggestion about how Republicans might respond to the drive for a higher minimum wage:

One way to do so is to support expanding the earned income tax credit, an earnings subsidy that targets poor households much better than the minimum wage does and poses no threat of destroying jobs. That credit may not be as easily understood as the minimum wage, but it would give Republicans a way to show that they want to help the poor — and that their stated objections to raising the minimum wage are sincere.

He might have added that the EITC used to be a very popular initiative among conservatives, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

But not any more, as both Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein quickly pointed out. Here’s Ezra’s brisk summary of the Republican revolt against the EITC:

The most recent Republican budget lets a stimulus-era boost in the EITC to expire and, on top of that, includes huge cuts to the part of the budget (the “income security budget function,” for wonks) that houses the EITC.

But it’s worse than that: the EITC has been largely responsible for eliminating federal income tax liability among low-income Americans. And that has become a deep source of grievance, and even of conspiracy theories, among conservatives at both the elite and grassroots level. The classic slam at the EITC was articulated by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which got into the habit of referring to poor people who didn’t owe federal income tax as “lucky duckies.” This in turn became integral to the popular conservative theory that people who didn’t pay income taxes didn’t bear the cost of governing (an argument, of course, that ignored all the other kinds of taxes the poor pay, often at regressive rates), and thus represented looters who voted themselves more and more of other people’s money.

I personally became convinced this had become an important part of conservative demonology when watching Rick Perry make his statement of presidential candidacy in 2011, at a RedState gathering in South Carolina. In the midst of an extended tirade about the need for lower taxes, Perry suddenly blasted “the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” The crowd responded with what I described at the time as a “feral roar.” So it wasn’t surprising a year or so later when Mitt Romney got caught buying into the same idea in his “47 percent” comments, about “people who pay no income tax” but nonetheless receive federal benefits.

Even if they didn’t rely on EITC cuts to pay for upper-end tax cuts in their budget schemes, Republicans seem to have developed a moral aversion to the EITC that’s more important to them than finding a sensible alternative to minimum wage increases. So Ponnuru is almost certainly barking up the wrong tree.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.