I could not be happier with the substantive debate over family policy that is now taking shape among conservatives, inspired by Sen. Romney’s proposed “Family Security Act.” It carries me back to the bi-partisan Communitarian movement of the 1990s, whose Position Paper on the Family, published in 1993, sought to articulate a “coherent pro-family agenda.”
In addition to calling for a “culture of familialism” to disrupt the “profound cultural shift toward excessive individualism … careerism … [and] acquisitiveness,” the paper recommended at least six months of publicly funded paid leave (as fiscal circumstances allow), flex-time and home work arrangements, and most importantly perhaps, a generous child allowance. “Parents should be able to choose between working at home and outside the home, but government tax policies should not be used to favor families who earn more because both parents work outside the home when there are young children in the family.” It seemed clear to me then that the Communitarians were right: only a higher viewpoint, one that saw the economy in the service of families and their members, not the other way around, would provide the rationale for a humane family policy. Twenty-five years later, you could say I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.
Oren Cass and Wells King’s proposed Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) has much to recommend it. The Fisc combines the merits of both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit while removing the EITC’s ill-conceived marriage penalty to offer parents a per-child monthly benefit, and married parents a nice bonus. What results is a kind of family wage subsidy or provider’s benefit, which would increase the earnings of the working poor and middle class significantly, and better still, encourage stable marital coupling so that parents can raise their children and work to build up their assets together.
An important insight deep within the structure of the Fisc is that much of the trouble ailing families right now is not strictly poverty; it’s fatherlessness. Whether it’s the fault of the Great Society programs themselves, deindustrialization, the sexual revolution, inordinate incarceration, or all of it together, fathers are far too often disconnected from their children, and their children’s mothers. This is not good for men or women, and it certainly isn’t good for their children. And so a family subsidy that encourages marital stability and bolsters provision is a means for fathers especially to have greater impact on the well-being of their families.
I would take some issue, however, with the Cass/King suggestion that families who have received the Fisc would need, as part of the social compact, to “repay the investment” or “debt” (by paying their share of increased taxes as their incomes rise). The truth, of course, is that such parents would not be left indebted to anyone. The families they build and the children they raise – and the goods both bring to the community – are their contribution. Indeed, parenting is itself, contra Cass/Wells’ depiction otherwise, a “productive economic contribution.” A direct cash benefit just spreads the overwhelming costs of raising the next generation to the community, allowing parents, as Cass and King write, more freedom from market work to give their children the time and attention they need to grow into happy and productive adults.
As a direct consequence of designing the benefit as a supplement for providers rather than a wage or allowance for caregivers, the Fisc seems far less beneficial to single mothers whose dual role as sole provider and sole caregiver clash in life, and so in the Cass/King proposal too. Those who are unable to work a sufficient amount to fund the following year’s supplemental credit are left in the traditional safety-net. Though existing programs work to address root causes of poverty in a way cash cannot, I worry about how work requirements (in both TANF and the Fisc) for mothers of very young children work to push those children into institutional day care from their infancy. The work requirement may well move poor single mothers out of economic poverty (I’ll leave that to the judgment of those far more expert than I), but poverties of the heart may be worse still.
Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center whose new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, is out from Notre Dame Press in July.