The Radically Simple New Approach to Helping Families: Send Parents Money

ImageCredit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York TimesThe United States government helps parents in a few ways — but none of the benefits are simple to get, or available to everyone. The benefits have different eligibility requirements and complicated paperwork. And most come once a year, at tax time, so they may not be as helpful when challenges arise in daily life.

Two new proposals from opposing parties — one from President Biden and one from Senator Mitt Romney — take a very different approach: They would give parents money monthly, with basically no strings attached.

The plans would send $250 to $350 a month to parents of children 17 and younger, with larger payments for children under 6. In contrast with the current child tax credit, the poorest families would be eligible. So would richer ones — Mr. Biden’s plan would begin phasing out for couples earning $150,000, and Mr. Romney’s for those earning $400,000.

The idea has many policy goals, including slashing child poverty; increasing fertility; and providing relief for parents struggling with the increasing costs of raising children, made worse by the pandemic. But perhaps the biggest change is how the idea of a monthly child allowance treats children — not as just a private responsibility, but as a societal good, deserving of unqualified public support, no matter their families’ income or employment.

“Children are future productive members of society, and their total benefit to society is greater than their benefit to their parents alone,” said Kasey Buckles, an economist at Notre Dame.

The United States is distinct among rich countries in thinking of children as, in many ways, an individual responsibility. Many European countries have family allowances, as do Canada and Australia (most allowances are larger than the ones being proposed in the United States), as well as policies like public child care and lengthy paid family leaves.

In the 1970s and ’80s, when women entered the work force in large numbers, the United States briefly considered the idea that the government and employers could help support family life, such as with public child care and flexible work hours. Instead, policymakers settled on the idea — supported by an alliance of people who believed in small government and traditional family structures — that it was mostly the responsibility of parents, and not the government, to invest in children.

The idea of sending checks to parents is a drastically different approach — suggesting that children are worthy of support, regardless of their parents’ circumstances. Research has shown that direct payments improve children’s health, educational and career outcomes. Children are future taxpayers, as well as future scientists, nurses and teachers.

If something in that vein were enacted, it would amount to an overhaul in how the United States provides social welfare benefits, casting aside a past practice of emphasizing complex, narrowly designed programs with eligibility requirements. It would signal an embrace of simplicity and wide availability.

Much of the American social safety net includes stringent requirements meant to ensure only the truly deserving receive help. But people forgo available benefits because of the complication and confusion of applying for them, or the perception that they are hard to obtain.

“In the old days, we thought that the more complex things were, the better targeted they would be,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern who has studied social welfare systems. “We’ve learned in the last 20 years that the more complex things are, the more likely the worst-off people will drop out.”

If American parents were receiving monthly deposits, they would be highly aware of them — which could make the programs more popular and politically durable. Currently, for example, Social Security is very popular even though it has progressive features that favor lower-income Americans. (Notably, Mr. Romney’s proposal would distribute the child allowance, beginning mid-pregnancy, through the Social Security Administration rather than through the tax system.)

Also, under both plans, many more people would be eligible for the checks than receive current child benefits. Among them would be the parents of 27 million children (parents who do not earn enough to qualify for the current child tax credit), including the parents of about half of all Black and Latino children. It would also include rich people — in Mr. Romney’s plan, all parents would get the checks, and couples earning $400,000 and up would be expected to repay some or all of it at tax time.

“This would be tangible and noticeable, and I think that’s all to the good in making it politically sustainable,” said Chuck Marr, senior director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Society is acknowledging that kids are expensive.”

Finally, the Biden and Romney plans would abolish the work requirement attached to most family benefits, and would make them available both to parents who stayed home and to those who paid for child care.

At $3,000 a year for parents of school-aged children, the benefit wouldn’t be large enough to substitute for a job. But it’s an acknowledgment that children need financial support, regardless of their parents’ employment status. Mr. Romney’s plan underlines this idea by changing one of the main benefits for poorer families, the earned-income tax credit. Now, it mostly supports low-income working parents, but the new plan would repeal the credit’s child benefit, making it primarily focused on rewarding work, regardless of parental status.

“This is a real departure, and I think it’s a recognition that it’s not your child’s fault if you’re not working, and your child is most definitely the one who suffers if you don’t have income,” said Elaine Maag, who studies tax policy and programs for low-income families at the Urban Institute.

It’s also a barrier to widespread Republican support. Two senators who have supported expanding the child tax credit, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, said they did not support Mr. Romney’s plan because it was a direct payment instead of tax relief for employed people.

There are other barriers, including how the proposals would be funded. Mr. Biden’s plan, part of his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, would expire after a year, though Democrats are trying to make it permanent. Mr. Romney’s would be paid for by cutting other safety net programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and various tax credits. Some on the left said they preferred for it to be paid for by raising taxes on the rich, rather than cutting programs for the poor — and said it would leave some low-income people worse off, by ending benefits they rely on.

It’s unclear whether either of the measures will pass in current form, and the amount of money being considered is not enough to solve the problems many parents are facing. But bipartisan support for the idea of a child allowance suggests policymakers believe parents deserve simple, reliable assistance, during the pandemic and afterward.

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