Acton Institute Powerblog

How much is good parenting worth?

(Photo credit: StacyZ aka Adore_One. CC BY 2.0.)

Recent policy debates over direct cash grants to parents from the federal government expose our society’s dysfunctional attitudes toward work and parenting. Over at the Detroit News, I have some thoughts and (mostly) concerns.

Or as I put it, “The creation of a new, permanent entitlement program for parents seems particularly unwise while our federal debt skyrockets and reform for already existing entitlement programs is so desperately needed.”

Oren Cass worries that universalizing a child benefit “goes too far” by disincentivizing work. I think he’s basically right, and what he says about the grants for children would also apply to proposals like a basic income guarantee or a universal basic income.

A problem with other, more complex proposals, however, is that they basically take money from workers in order to give a smaller portion of it back – with enough taken out to pay for the administration of the redistribution, of course. As the Jesuit priest Juan de Mariana observed, “Money, transferred through many ministers, is like a liquid. It always leaves a residue in the containers.”

With respect both to these cash grant proposals and various proposals for wage supplementation, I ask, “Why not significantly reduce or even eliminate those most regressive of taxes, the withholdings the federal government takes directly from workers’ paychecks each week?”

New York Times columnist Ezra Klein uses the plans put forth by President Joe Biden and Sen. Mitt Romney to explore these challenges, and he does so in a way that exposes the difficulties endemic to such complex realities. For Klein, the hardships faced by a single mother working multiple jobs leads to the searching question whether these experiences were “a success of American public policy or a failure.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a pundit would immediately turn to government action as the salient arena for our social problems, or their solutions. And while government policy does have a role to play in shaping our culture, habits, attitudes, and practices around work and parenting, the idea that it is the primary driver of these realities displays a far-too ambitious view of policy interventions and a far-too enervated appreciation for the institutions of civil society, including families, churches, and charities.

Little mention is made of the connections between marriage and family income in Klein’s essay on the inherent indignities of work, for example, even though the piece ostensibly focuses on parenting in the modern economy. What Klein is really proposing is the commodification of all forms of work – even those, such as parenting, that have historically remained separate from the economic sphere. And since parenting is by definition a nonmarket form of work, this commodification requires direct government intervention to set a price by fiat. How much is a person’s parenting worth? And who decides?

Many in our political class would be more than happy to tell us what a mother’s or father’s labor is worth through direct government transfers. No doubt this course of action comes with the best of intentions to address a real social challenge. But the idea that the relationship between poverty and parenting, and between work and family, are simply matters to be solved by cash payments from the federal government reveals contradictory attitudes towards work held by so many policy analysts and political commentators.

On the one hand, we are told that work has “no natural dignity.” From an economic point of view, labor is a cost – something to be minimized, made more efficient, and avoided wherever possible. On the other hand, however, we are said to “venerate” work, viewing it as a necessary precondition or even the highest good of social life.

The truth about work and family is much more complicated than either of these. And the solutions to our challenges are too complex and important to be solved merely by government economic policy.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.