Scott Walker Will Give 671,000 Wisconsin Families an Election-Year Check

Walking the talk. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Walker is about to give every family in Wisconsin a $100 check for each child that it’s raising — an economically incoherent policy that’s clearly intended to bribe voters into giving the governor a third term.

And Democratic officeholders should really be implementing more policies like it.

But before we get that point, let’s take a closer look at the “Badger-State Buyoff.” Thanks to a combination of Walker’s spending cuts and good economic times, Wisconsin currently boasts a budget surplus. It also has one of the most depleted rainy-day funds of any U.S. state. Thus, it would seem fiscally prudent to put the surplus into that emergency reserve — or else, into public investments that would pay long-term dividends for the state, such as infrastructure or public education.

But Walker is more concerned with political prudence, at the moment. A series of Democratic upsets in recent Wisconsin special elections has the governor afraid of drowning in a blue wave this November. And if he wants to alert the public to the “fact” that his superior economic management has produced a budget surplus, investing the excess funds in programs that will pay off years from now won’t cut it. He needed something splashy, and instantly gratifying — like say, by setting up a website where every Wisconsinite with kids can claim $100 checks:

Starting May 15, parents in Wisconsin can log on to a state-run website, answer a few questions and sign up to get checks worth $100 per child.

To Gov. Scott Walker (R), who drove the one-time tax payout into law, it’s a chance to turn a state budget surplus into a bonus for parents who could use extra cash. To his critics, who note that Walker is a few months away from a tough reelection bid, it looks like campaign-year bribery of the up to 671,000 families who could receive checks.

And to independent economists, it’s a mystifying piece of tax policy that has no clear long-term economic purpose and few, if any, recent comparable examples, given that tax breaks are traditionally incorporated for tax filing season — not in the months before an election.

As cynical policy stunts go, Walker could have done something much less defensible than hand out a universal child tax credit (like, for example, he could have given billions in taxpayer subsidies to a Taiwanese tech company). But it’s fair for Democrats to point out that most working-class Wisconsinites would be better off with a more generous Medicaid expansion and a better-funded public education system than they’ll be with a $100 bucks for their kids’ back-to-school shopping. And it’s legitimate for progressives to worry that greater visibility of the latter benefit will lead some voters to ignore the broader costs of Republican rule.

But between bouts of bellyaching, liberals should consider how they can construct equally politically savvy (but more substantively sound) policies. One of the major challenges facing progressives in the United States is that so many popular government programs are virtually invisible to voters. A significant portion of social-welfare spending is doled out through a complicated patchwork of tax credits that don’t register to Americans as public aid. A 2008 poll from the Cornell Survey Research Institute famously found 57 percent of Americans saying they’d never benefited from “a government social program” — even as 94 percent of that group subsequently acknowledged benefiting from at least one program, when they were asked about 21 federal policies individually.

And yet, Democrats haven’t always made a conscious effort to make their programs more visible. In 2009, Barack Obama deliberately made the tax rebate in his stimulus package indiscernible to voters, by modestly reducing workers’ withholding payments instead of mailing out lump-sum checks. The former method was expected to be more economically efficient, but it was politically unwise; and there’s nothing economically prudent about making it easier for Republicans to win elections.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t policy principles worth suffering electoral losses to uphold; or that Democrats should design policies with nothing save political advantage in mind. But thinking about how one can craft policies to maximize their visibility to beneficiaries — and their electoral utility to your officeholders — is just good politics. Scott Walker knows that. Democrats could do more to demonstrate that they do, too.

Walker Will Give 671,00 Families an Election-Year Check