The Phony Conservative Attacks on Child Credits

Joe Biden and Mitt Romney have interesting, important plans to help working mothers. Conservatives say this will reduce work. Oh, please.

Late last week, Vice President Kamala Harris declared the hemorrhaging of women from the workforce as a result of the pandemic a “national emergency.” “In one year,” she said,  “the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk.”

Of course, millions of women might say it’s been a national emergency all along. What else would you call balancing the demands of raising children, tending to elderly parents, and holding a job, let alone nurturing a career? Women routinely sacrifice wages and job opportunities due to family responsibilities. For instance, women are ten times more likely than men to take off work when a child is sick, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a majority (60%) don’t get paid when they do. Only 17% of workers male or female had access to paid family leave in 2018, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though women feel the lack of that benefit most acutely. Pre-pandemic, six in ten working moms told the Pew Research Center that juggling work and family is “difficult.” The pandemic has since proved to be the breaking point, prompting 2.5 million women to drop out of the workforce altogether.

Unfortunately, many conservatives don’t seem to be feeling the urgency of the crisis.

The economic relief package proposed by President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats would offer some much-needed relief to struggling families. It includes paid family leave and, most notably, a revolutionary expansion of the child tax credit to $3600 per child, delivered as a monthly “child allowance” so families need not wait until tax time for benefits. While a few conservatives have embraced these ideas – Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), for example, introduced his own child allowance plan — others have opposed them. Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for instance, derided the child allowance as “welfare assistance” that would “undercut[…] the responsibility of parents to work to provide for their families.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Scott Winship recently told the New York Times’ Ezra Klein that “he just doesn’t believe it’s the government’s role to subsidize parenting.”

But government already provides plenty of subsidies to parents – so long as they’re middle or even upper class. The Child and Dependent Care Credit, for example, offers families up to $3,000 in benefits to cover child care costs (including nannies and housekeepers). According to the Tax Policy Center, the bulk of the benefits flow to families in the top two income quintiles, while those in the bottom fifth don’t benefit at all.

There are other perks to affluence: Middle-income and wealthy families disproportionately benefit from tax breaks for education expenses, including tax-preferred education savings accounts, 529 accounts, and education tax credits. The federal deduction for state and local property taxes and the home mortgage interest deduction also arguably support middle-class families with children by subsidizing the cost of buying houses in neighborhoods with better schools. Biden’s proposed child allowance makes explicit what’s long been implicit and extends those benefits to low-income families as well as the middle class.

As for the argument that the benefit would discourage work, it’s hard to see how a few hundred dollars – given the expense of raising a child – would induce a parent to quit a job and sit on the couch. The better way to think of a child allowance is as a wage subsidy for parents without livable earnings.

Conservative objections to the child allowance ultimately boil down to this: A refusal to acknowledge that the work of raising a child – especially a poor child – is real work that is worthy of recompense. While Sens. Lee and Rubio fret that a bigger child credit would discourage paid work, they refuse to see that it compensates mothers for the unpaid child care they already provide. Caregiving – already devalued as “women’s work” – becomes cause for punishment when it’s poor women who are performing it on behalf of poor children.

Conservatives have been heartless in their insistence on “work requirements” – which they see as mandatory not only for cash assistance programs such as welfare, which has some logic, but for food stamps and Medicaid, which is not only burdensome but laughably impractical. Work, then eat!

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the loudest opponents of the child allowance in Congress are (wait for it) white men, albeit Romney, with his five children and 25 grandchildren, is driving much of the discussion.

Still, the sad truth is that many men’s current lived experiences end up calcified in policy. Men still don’t do much of the caregiving work in the United States. To no one’s surprise, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that women in the U.S. spend an average of four hours a day on unpaid labor around the home – about twice that of men. And because women perform so much of this work, economic statistics ignore this enormous contribution. The value of all this unpaid care, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, was as high as $3.2 trillion – or 20 percent of GDP – in 2012.

Fathers rarely make the sacrifices that women do. Women are often penalized with lower wages and less work outside the home once they have children, while men who become dads often enjoy a “fatherhood premium” on their wages of between 6% and 13%.

Allowing conservatives to cloak their objections in the language of “work” is an insult to all parents and to mothers in particular.  The irony is, of course, that men would benefit from a child allowance just like women and children would. You can’t help but wonder:  Had the child allowance been framed as a “fatherhood credit” to recognize men’s household contributions and encourage “responsible fatherhood,” would we be seeing the same objections and having the same debate?

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.