As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight and we see some hope on the horizon, politicians in our nation’s capital are considering significant proposals to address the crises of the working poor and child poverty. The plans, most prominently those championed by President Joe Biden and Sen. Mitt Romney, focus on both the particular challenges of the pandemic as well as the ongoing and structural difficulties of work and parenting in our modern economy. Although they differ in detail and in some important ways, these plans aim to provide direct funds to parents through monthly payments from the federal government.
Unfortunately, proposals to create programs to distribute cash grants to parents tend to offer simplistic and superficial solutions to challenges that are complex and multifaceted. The plans favored by so many in the political class always seem to include ever greater government spending. In this case, the call is for direct, monthly payments to parents. But if we want to make lower-waged work more rewarding, why not significantly reduce or even eliminate those most regressive of taxes, the withholdings the federal government takes directly from workers’ paychecks each week?
During the Great Recession, President Obama championed a payroll tax holiday to help put more money in the pockets and the bank accounts of working people. If we face a perennial challenge and not simply a need in the time of crisis, why not make the reduction or elimination of such taxes permanent? Why not make work worth more by having the government take less? Instead, the proposals we so often get from government share one thing in common: more government spending and intervention. 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.
And even if these proposals are intended to be revenue-neutral, the reality is that this would only be accomplished by reducing or eliminating programs — like the earned income tax credit (EITC) — that are focused on overlapping but not identical populations. The EITC is intended to amplify the earnings of lower-waged workers, whether they are single or married, parents or childless. Reducing or eliminating the EITC and similar programs could increase the burden on single and childless wage-earners in favor of parents.
Leaving the EITC in place and implementing a monthly per child payment could likewise disincentivize marriage, an important factor that is all too often left out of policy debates. A single mother, for instance, could collect the monthly child allowance while her partner — a father perhaps — could continue to work a job that would be enhanced through the EITC. If they were to marry, at least under some possible policy environments, their wage-supplement benefits would be reduced.
Family formation and birth rates remain third-rail issues in many of these policy discussions. The U.S. is currently below replacement levels of population, having recently followed the movements in most of the developed world. The economist Lyman Stone has cogently pointed out the possibility that child allowances in some forms might help to reverse some of these troubling trends, in part by reducing the likelihood of abortions. As he characterizes it, Romney’s plan “is likely to reduce abortion, and also provides better treatment of marriage, ameliorating some of the effects of any possible increase in single parenthood.” To the extent that these policies might have some real pro-natal and pro-marriage potential, they should be welcomed and seriously considered in light of these weighty moral realities.
At the same time, however, the impact of some other plans, including historic government policies, on family formation remain morally, economically and socially significant. For the first time in history there are about the same amount of single parent households as there are two-parent households with a single breadwinner. Government policy cannot afford to remain neutral with respect to the desirability of intact two-parent households for the moral, intellectual, and social development of children. To the extent that government welfare undermines or disincentivizes the so-called “success sequence” (finish secondary school; get a paying job; marry before having children), the entire system needs to be questioned.
Rather than simply adding to the patchwork and alphabet soup of our current federal welfare system, we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of work in our human and social development. This requires a coherent understanding of the relationship between work, parenting and education in our nation. These serious proposals to provide direct federal benefits to parents are an excellent opportunity to step back and have some overdue discussions about what we want as a society and what we want our government policy to promote.
What we really need is greater recognition — individually and societally — of the inherent dignity and value of all forms of authentic work, whether waged or not. We need to celebrate labor that gets recognized with paychecks and those — like parenting — that do not. But we also need to keep work in its place and resist the temptation to put a federal price tag on parenting.
Work, understood as the service of others, has to be complemented with an understanding of the need for rest and repose — spiritually as well as physically. The ancient religious commandments concerning the Sabbath observance are not only about resting but also about working faithfully, doing justice to the realities of the human person body and soul. A holistic understanding of work views it as having an objective dimension, such as the good produced or the service that is done, as well as a subjective dimension. Our characters and even our bodies are formed (or deformed) by our work and our rest and the relationship between the two.
There are reasons, perhaps some good and perhaps some not so good, that the fundamentally formative work parents do of changing diapers and reading to children at bedtime is not counted in GDP calculations. Those arguing for a basic parenting wage — which is really what such government transfers amount to — think that such policies will dignify the significance of such sacrifices. What it will more likely do, however, is reduce the role of parents to just one more element of the labor force to be counted and manipulated by economic policy to a greater extent than they already are.
Economists and social critics since the time of Adam Smith have recognized that some forms of work — as well as some amounts of work — are destructive of the human person rather than developmentally formative. Smith worried that the worker “whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations … has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
He proposed a vibrant system of education to address the deleterious effects of repetitive and stultifying labor. In this Smith saw the important interconnections between culture, labor, education and society that our contemporary policy debates elide or ignore.
The goal of our economic policy and our social practices should be the realization of a truly humane society that rightly values work without either worshiping it or deriding it. This calls for an authentic and comprehensive reform of not only society but of ourselves — a grand task that no number of policy interventions and no amount of cash transfers will ever be able to accomplish.