In the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous debate performance, speculation has been swirling that Vice President Kamala Harris might replace him as the Democratic nominee. Regardless of how this particular drama plays out, it is worth taking a look at where she stands on issues of poverty and social welfare. 

Of course, for the last four years, she has been a diligent supporter of the Biden administration’s welfare policies. I’ve written about those policies and how they compare to those advocated by President Trump. But from both her time in the Senate and as a presidential candidate in 2000, she has a record of her own.

While most observers suggest that a Harris presidency would largely be a continuation of the Biden policies, some liberal activists, such as Pangaea Policy's Terry Haines, expect her to be “more aggressive on support for welfare programs, for housing programs—that sort of thing.”  

During her time in the Senate, Harris tended to align with progressives like Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) on welfare and poverty issues. She was skeptical of work requirements or other restrictions and tended to support more funding for welfare. For instance, she supported Sanders’ legislation to increase the baseline for SNAP benefits by roughly 30 percent and expand benefits to those living in U.S. territories.  

Harris has flirted with the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). As a senator, Harris sponsored what may be the most expansive and expensive social welfare bill ever introduced in Congress. Her not-quite-UBI proposal would have paid $2,000 per month to individuals earning less than $100,000 annually in adjusted gross income, heads-of-households earning less than $150,000, and married couples earning less than $200,000. Up to three children per household would also have received $2,000 monthly payments. There would be no work requirement or other restrictions, and payments would supplement rather than replace current benefits. The American Enterprise Institute estimated that this bill would have cost as much as $16 trillion over three years, all of it deficit financed.  

Another Harris bill would have provided a refundable tax credit to families that earned less than $100,000 per year—$120,000 in more expensive cities—and spent at least 30 percent of their income on rent. And during her short-lived 2020 presidential campaign, Harris advocated a refundable $6,000 tax credit for working families. 

As with President Biden, it is safe to say that Vice President Harris and President Trump have very different views of the American welfare system and the role that the government should play in fighting poverty. President Trump was hardly a great champion of welfare reform, and many of his proposals will likely make life more difficult for the poorest Americans. But a hypothetical President Harris seems likely to do little more than double down on upholding the Biden administration’s policies of expanding the social safety net and supporting unconditional transfers.  

Both Biden and Harris offer the continuation of a failed poverty status quo. As I’ve written, we already have more than 130 federal anti-poverty programs costing more than $1.1 trillion per year and an additional $800 billion at the state and local level. At best, this has allowed us to reduce material deprivation: to make poverty slightly less miserable. But we’ve done little to help low-income Americans to escape poverty and become self-sufficient. So far, there is little in Harris’s record to suggest she gets this.