Just Taxes Blog by ITEP

Alvin Schorr and the Policy Relay Race

April 27, 2021

Sometimes a good idea takes a while.

Alvin Schorr, who would have turned 100 this month, helped draft a 1972 bill “to provide for a system of children’s allowances.” He continued to push (in a 1977 congressional testimony and in a 1983 New York Times op-ed) for a refundable tax credit for all families and a children’s allowance, among other laudable ideas.

A half-century later, these ideas—which many others have championed—are becoming reality.

I met Alvin in 1999 when he’d already been fielding 20 years of hostility toward his gentle, informed approach to poverty prevention. He, along with then Ohio State Representative C.J. Prentiss and labor leaders John Ryan and Michael Charney, helped me start Policy Matters Ohio, a think tank fighting for a more equitable, sustainable, inclusive Ohio, partnering with national organizations like the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy where I now work, promoting equitable taxation and better-funded government.

During Alvin’s 94 years of life, he provided a voice for those who often aren’t heard. But the last third of the twentieth century and the beginning of this one were tough times to amplify that perspective. As Deputy Assistant Secretary for individual and family services in President Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Alvin made a difference. Still, he spent much of his professional life seeing anti-poverty, pro-worker policies attacked and weakened.

When President Joe Biden took office, a vocal chorus of children’s advocates, community activists, and low-income families urged him to get help to households with children, particularly those who had been pushed into pandemic poverty or who faced poverty pre-pandemic. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), herself no stranger to the persistent embrace of an ignored idea, pushed to do so through an expanded Child Tax Credit, something she has been pursuing for more than two decades.

The Biden administration took up the charge, rectifying a long-standing inequity by temporarily making the full value of the Child Tax Credit available to all families earning less than $400,000 a year, including those with very low or no earnings. At the same time, Biden’s policies upped the size of the credit, broadening the constituency who would support the expanded and universalized assistance. There is now a promising movement to make permanent the expansion, which raises the family incomes of the very poorest children by more than 37 percent.

Alvin would be heartened by the historically centrist Joe Biden embracing reforms that could cut poverty by 50 percent, buoyed by a rising movement of young people, racial justice advocates, and others demanding a more equitable America. He’d certainly want to see the change endure beyond the current crisis. We may be at a moment to finally discard the tax-cutting, corporate-kowtowing approach that has dominated since President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural announcement of his opposition to a competent government. We shouldn’t waste the chance to usher in lasting reform that can reverse the inequities worsened by Reaganism.

Alvin Schorr fought poverty using the tools of analysis, research and advocacy. As a social worker, service provider, administrator, bureaucrat, professor, dean and scholar, he found a through-line. In all of those roles, he advocated—in his understated, wry way—better support for children, more respect for poor and working people, and policies to help people escape poverty. He also pushed these ideas at the family dinner table—one of his daughters remembers hearing repeated discussion of a children’s allowance when she was just a child herself.

The 20-plus-page meandering, scholarly congressional testimony Alvin delivered in 1977 wouldn’t fly in 2021. I know this as I recently testified myself, a tight one-and-a-half pages that I rehearsed so incessantly I think my parakeet could have delivered it. While talking mostly about why we should raise corporate taxes (which might happen!), I also touted the Child Tax Credit. ITEP’s analysis shows that the expanded child tax credit and other provisions in the American Rescue Plan would boost most American incomes and would particularly lift the poorest families. I know Alvin would be happy about both.

At Alvin’s memorial service, I mentioned the adage about social justice work not being a sprint as we sometimes think at the beginning of our careers, and not being a marathon as we might conclude mid-career, but instead being a relay race, dragging the baton as far as we can take it before tossing it to someone else who can bring it further toward the finish line.

I’m one of many people to whom Alvin tossed the baton. Ideas he helped seed decades ago are now becoming temporary policy after a hostile half century. We’ve waited too long for traction on these solutions. Now is a good time to make enduring change. In honor of the many people who’ve carried this idea forward, let’s expand the Child Tax Credit for the long haul.


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