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Child poverty is a choice Judd Legum

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In 2022, the child poverty rate spiked to 12.4%, a dramatic increase of 7.2 percentage points from the previous year, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The increase in child poverty resulted in 5.28 million additional children living in poverty. 

The implications for each of these children are massive. Children who experience poverty endure immediate hardships, including “food insecurity and hunger, inadequate clothing or diapers, lack of health care, living in overcrowded or substandard housing, or being homeless.” 

The long-term consequences of child poverty are severe. As Indivar Dutta-Gupta, President of the Center for Law and Social Policy, explained during Congressional testimony in July, “poverty also harms children by imposing high levels of stress on their parents, which impairs their capacity to give their children the care and attention any child needs to thrive.” As a result, children who experience poverty at any time are “far more likely than their peers to fail to finish high school, become parents as teens, and experience poverty as adults.”

The massive increase in child poverty last year was a completely predictable and avoidable tragedy. Powerful people inside and outside the federal government chose to let this happen because they had other priorities. 

In 2021, the child poverty rate fell to 5.2%, a record low. The key to this reduction was tax policy. As part of the national response to the pandemic, the federal government expanded the child tax credit (CTC). The CTC was increased from $2,000 per child to $3,600 for each child five or younger and $3,000 for each child six through 17. (The credit phased out for couples making $150,000 or more and individuals making $75,000 or more.) Further, from July to December 2021, credits were sent to eligible families as a monthly benefit instead of forcing families to wait for a tax refund. Finally, the CTC was made fully refundable regardless of income. Previously, millions of families were denied some or all of the tax credit because they made too little money. 

The expansion was scheduled to expire at the end of 2021. The Biden administration initially proposed extending the expanded CTC for four years. The cost of the expanded CTC is about $100 billion per year. Could America afford to extend the tax credit indefinitely to help millions of children?

It’s a matter of priorities. In 2021, when Biden took office, the Pentagon budget was $740 billion. In July, the House of Representatives approved a $886 billion Pentagon budget. (These numbers exclude military aid to Ukraine.) So, in two years, the leaders of the country increased the Pentagon budget by $146 billion. And, since the Pentagon budget is never reduced, this $146 billion will be spent annually, in perpetuity. Next year, the Pentagon budget will surely exceed $886 billion. 

None of this military buildup increase was offset by spending reductions or tax increases. The money has simply been added to the deficit. The Biden administration had numerous proposals to pay for an extension of the expanded CTC, including a modest increase in the corporate tax rate, the elimination of a tax loophole for private equity managers, and a surtax on billionaires. 

But wealthy and powerful people either opposed those measures or opposed, on principle, adjusting tax policy to benefit poor families. So, they used their influence to defeat proposals to extend the expanded CTC. As a result, millions of children are living in poverty. 

Corporations sunk the expanded child tax credit

In 2021, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – a group that represents nearly every major corporation in the United States – spent millions of dollars lobbying against the expanded CTC  extension, which at the time was included as a provision in Biden’s reconciliation bill. The group claimed to have concerns about “large amounts of transfer payments that are not connected to work” and suggested that the CTC “will dampen participation” in the workforce. Similarly, the Business Roundtable, which represents many of the nation’s top CEOs, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat Biden’s bill.

Corporate lobbyists were even more concerned with proposals that would have required companies to pay a more equitable share of taxes to offset the cost of the expanded CTC. As a result of former President Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), many of the largest companies in the country paid little to no taxes for several years, despite raking in record profits. In 2021, AT&T, for example, made $29.6 billion but paid no federal income taxes. Charter Communications also made $6 billion in 2021, yet paid nothing in federal income taxes. And AIG (a company that was bailed out by the government during the 2008 financial crisis by more than $182 billion) made $9.8 billion and paid nothing in federal income taxes. 

Biden’s proposal, which would have extended the expanded CTC, would have reversed these deep corporate tax cuts by a modest amount. Major corporations prioritized maintaining the lowest possible tax rate over the well-being of impoverished children. 

Manchin opposed child tax credit extension, claiming parents would use the money to buy drugs

One of the Biden administration’s most prominent proposals to expand the CTC was in Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which included expanding the CTC for one year. This proposal was blocked, in part, by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). In December 2021, just weeks before the CTC was set to expire, Manchin announced that he would not be voting for the Build Back Better Act, even after Democrats “shaped much of the current version of the bill around” his demands. With Democrats holding 50 seats in the Senate, Manchin joined a unified Republican Party to sink the bill.

Manchin released a statement stating that he opposed Build Back Better “largely because of its cost,” stating that his “colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face.” Publicly, Manchin stated that “he has always supported the child tax credit” and opposed Build Back Better for other reasons. But, according to HuffPost, Manchin privately “told his colleagues that he essentially doesn’t trust low-income people to spend government money wisely.” Manchin “told several of his fellow Democrats that he thought parents would waste monthly child tax credit payments on drugs instead of providing for their children.” 

There is no evidence that CTC payments were being used by parents to purchase drugs. US Census Household Pulse data found that, between July 21 and August 16, 2021, the payments were spent “on basic household needs and children’s essentials.” The data found that food was “the most common item” purchased using CTC money, with “half of all families in the US using their Child Tax Credit payment” for food. Food also “top[ped] the list in every state” except Mississippi, “where school essentials and food are essentially tied for number one.” Other top expenses paid for by the CTC payments included “essential bills,” “children’s clothing,” “[r]ent/mortgage,” and “school and child care.”

 

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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Photo illustration by The Free Press

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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April 15, 2024 Garamond

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