The Atlantic published 10X more articles lamenting school Covid protocols than it did on the sunsetting of a Tax Credit that threw 3.7M children back into poverty.
Despite their constant consternation over covid protocols and their effects on "the children", The Atlantic has a limited framework for what harms to children matter.
No publication has centered concerns about “the children” during the pandemic more than The Atlantic. Over the past year, The Atlantic has run 33 separate articles arguing, ostensibly, on behalf of the welfare of children to reduce or eliminate Covid restrictions and “open” up schools. From just the past 6 weeks:
01/05/22: Universities Need to Catch Up to the Post-vaccine Reality: Remote learning hurts students, Emily Oster
01/7/22: Why I Soured on the Democrats: COVID school policies set me adrift from my tribe, Angie Schmitt
01/11/22: Two Years Is Long Enough, Helen Lewis
01/26/22: The Case Against Masks at School, Margery Smelkinson, Leslie Bienen, and Jeanne Noble
02/09/22: Open Everything: The time to end pandemic restrictions is now, Yascha Mounk
A total list of the publication’s coverage opposing, either directly or implicitly, the removal of Covid protocols for children and college students can be viewed here.
Some of these articles are judgment calls, and many borderline articles were left off the list because their primary topic was something other than Concern For The Children. But 33 ought to be a pretty fair count of the coverage since February 2021. As the most influential liberal magazine in the United States, The Atlantic has been the most popular voice for Covid-protocol skeptical liberals—namely, wealthier, whiter liberals who are more likely to oppose school closings and mask mandates and, not coincidentally, more likely to subscribe to The Atlantic. Indeed, The Atlantic’s own description of its readers is “affluent and accomplished,” so its target market is far more likely to care about school closures than tax credits for the poor.
Which is what makes a comparison with The Atlantic’s coverage of the sunsetting of the Democrats’ Child Tax Credit noteworthy. Under the program, which spanned from July to December of 2021, the Internal Revenue Service disbursed payments of $300 per child under six and $250 per older child. The disappearance of the program was instantly catastrophic for the welfare of children. A report released Thursday by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University provides a shocking picture: The expiration of President Biden’s Child Tax Credit on Dec. 31 has thrown 3.7 million more children into poverty, marking a 41 percent increase in child poverty, with Black and Latino children facing the greatest percentage point increases. Thanks to the evaporation of this program, we are now seeing the highest rate of child poverty since the end of 2020, the study notes.
Mysteriously, though, this subject didn’t spark nearly as much editorial concern for The Atlantic as school closings and mask mandates for children did. For the past year, there’s been political jockeying by progressives and, ostensibly, the White House, to expand the Child Tax Credit program, which has proven to meaningfully reduce poverty. As the Columbia study notes, “By December, it was keeping 3.7 million children from poverty and reducing monthly child poverty by 30 percent.” Despite its tremendous impact on child welfare, the Child Tax Credit, during the past year, was the focal point of only three Atlantic articles: “Is This the End of Welfare as We Know It?” from August 2021, “Cash for Kids Comes to the United States” from July 2021, both by Annie Lowery, and “A Simple Approach to Ending Extreme Poverty” from June 2021, by H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn J. Edin. In April 2021 they published “The Danger of Shortchanging Parents” by Stephanie H. Murray about parental support in general that did mention the yet-to-be implemented Biden Child Tax Credit.
Since August of last year, The Atlantic’s output hasn’t highlighted, campaigned for, or published opinions lobbying for an extension of the Child Tax Credit. No article has had, as its primary thesis, advocated for the millions of children soon to be—and since—thrown into poverty. Certainly none in the waning days of 2021, when last-minute advocacy may have put additional pressure on Senate holdouts Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Certainly, what one middle-brow magazine says will never be dispositive, but it would have been useful to raise the issue, interrogate it, draw attention to it. Instead, the reader was treated to a dozen more articles about malingering teachers’ unions are and why mask mandates are hurting children.
The most controversial of The Atlantic’s go-to Care About The Children writers is Brown Economics professor Emily Oster, who’s made a second career out of being a School Opening Hawk, regardless of new variants or inconvenient data, with output such as “Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders” to “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever” to “The ‘Just Stay Home’ Message Will Backfire.” Oster has yet to write about the urgency of saving the Child Tax Credit. Nor have other writers Concerned For The Children, such as Yascha Mounk or Helen Lewis.
In a January 27 article, author Carrie McKean contrasts her “West Texas community,” which continued to hold in-person classes without masks during a Covid surge, with “big-city school districts where potential exposures—not even positive tests—trigger a cascade of teacher and student absences, and where administrators, parents, and teachers’ unions fight about whether schools should be open at all.” In McKean’s telling, the presence of teachers’ unions is an obstacle to the pro-child policies of her community, where you can still see “a little boy’s gap-toothed smile in the checkout line.” She goes on to claim that she’s never heard anyone complain about the policy, including teachers, but notes there are no teachers’ unions in her town:
These days, discontent over in-person instruction is hard to detect.. Teacher unions have negligible power in Texas; I’m sure that individual education professionals have a wide range of beliefs and preferences about COVID rules. However, as far as I can tell, few, if any, local teachers are calling for more virtual days or hybrid classrooms.
If West Texas teachers are denied this vital platform for speaking out and expressing grievances, how does McKean know they aren’t concerned? It would be understandable if they were: Texas is averaging 11,270 new cases a day. Since January 2020, 83,648 Texans have died of Covid. This kind of stealth disparagement of teachers’ unions, in which it is assumed any grievances they have are sprung from selfish disregard of children’s wellbeing, not only helps justify their dangerous working conditions, but also hand-waves away this huge death toll. Surely these deaths of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, loved ones, and children affects the welfare of Texas youth. Since 1 in 500 children has lost a guardian to Covid, finding an older child to write an essay themselves couldn’t be too difficult. Nor, one would assume, would it be too difficult to find liberals who’ve “soured” on Democrats over their inability to expand the popular Child Tax Credit. But alas, first person narratives about Democratic voters drifting away from the party are only afforded to those upset about closings and mask mandates.
This is not to say The Atlantic’s editorial line around school Covid protocol has been uniform. The outlet occasionally publishes the dissenting take for good measure, and Ed Yong’s reporting has been an outlier, centering the vulnerable and avoiding the rah rah “tough it out” tone most others. But the overwhelming bulk of The Atlantic’s output has, more or less, had the same editorial line: School covid protocols hurt children.
The Atlantic has published a handful of articles since February 2021 that mention, in passing, the Child Tax Credit, but it has only published three articles that are about the Child Tax Credit: its benefits and, by extension, how its end would impact the poor in this country. And when the topic was most urgent and facing the chopping block this past fall and winter, it published no policy advocacy for its saving. The Atlantic discloses in several articles that its Covid coverage is funded by “Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” the latter of which has invested considerable amounts of money in privatizing education and the attendant charter school “movement,” so it logically follows The Atlantic isn’t centering the public health demands of rank and file teachers. The publication did publish an article by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, but only because, as you may have guessed, she promised fealty to the Democratic party line of school openings at any cost. Weingarten’s approach contracts with that of teachers’ unions around the country. The Chicago Teachers Union, for example, has gone head to head with the city’s mayor throughout the pandemic to demand basic Covid protections, like better masks, access to testing and vaccines, and temporary, targeted remote learning during surges. The Atlantic could have, instead, run a piece by the leader of this more grassroots, less partisan teachers’ union, but of course it did not.
The tradeoffs for school closures, masking mandates, and learning losses for children are more than fair game for debate—there is, more often than not, no easy answer. But the constant hand-wringing over Covid protocols for children while largely ignoring, over the past six months, the pending crime of 3.7 million children being thrown into poverty shows, for our elite media, which harms to kids merit concern and which do not.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Stephanie H. Murray’s piece didn’t “mention the yet-to-be-implemented child tax credit.” It did mention Biden’s credit which had just passed Congress. We apologize for the error.