Ramesh Ponnuru: Which programs for children should Democrats cut?

One hidden effect of the federal government's programs for the elderly is to transfer resources from large families to small ones.

Ramesh Ponnuru: Which programs for children should Democrats cut?

It’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice, but it’s still painful for Democrats. Their big spending bill includes three programs for children: a subsidy for child care, monthly checks to parents and a paid family leave program. But they need the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and he says they can have only one of the three. They should go with the checks.

Each idea has its advocates, as a New York Times survey of experts in family policy demonstrated. Deciding among them requires picking which of multiple goals is most important.

The Times quoted a sociologist who argued that paid leave was necessary for “changing gender norms both at work and at home.” Another sociologist backed making child care cheaper for parents because it “would likely pull more women in the workforce.”

Sending checks to parents, as the proposal to expand the tax credit for children would do, does not directly advance those objectives. Families could use the extra money to allow new mothers to take a few months off from paid employment with an eye toward resuming it. Fathers, too, for that matter.

But families with mothers who work for money only part-time, or not at all, would also get the checks. They might even use the money to help finance a reduction in paid work.

That flexibility ought to be considered one of the tax credit’s virtues. Families vary in their needs and desires. We generally, and rightly, leave it to parents to make judgments about what’s best for their children.

If a policy aims to send resources to help families with children, then why not give them the money and let them do what they want with it? The federal government should not put its thumb on the scale to encourage more mothers to stay at home or to earn an income.

Some readers, especially those of a libertarian bent, would go further and say that the government should be neutral between households with and without children — and not transfer resources from the childless to parents in the first place.

There is also a more technical economic argument for helping two-income families that need to pay for child care. Since we tax people’s pay, we should give tax breaks for incurring the costs associated with paid work. That’s not a special favor for two-income families, the argument continues. The only reason we don’t give a corresponding tax break to couples with a stay-at-home parent is that we’re not taxing the second parent’s work in the first place.

Both the principled objection to helping parents at all and the technical case for helping two-earners in particular are, however, blinkered. Aid to parents is not, in the first place, a way of favoring them over non-parents: It’s a way of helping children. Some households don’t have children, yes, but all future households are run by former children. Governments need not be indifferent to the welfare and even the existence of future citizens.

We also have a large implicit tax on parents, and especially on parents of large families. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one hidden effect of the federal government’s programs for the elderly is to transfer resources from large families to small ones.

Social Security and Medicare rely for their financing not only on the taxes of current workers but on their making the financial sacrifices necessary to raise families. Your benefits do not depend on you, personally, making the financial sacrifices needed to raise a family raising children; but they do depend on other people doing it. Families with stay-at-home moms will tend to lose out from this arrangement because they tend to be larger.

Giving money to parents based on how many children they are raising, and without regard to how they divide paid and unpaid work, offsets an existing bias in federal policy against children without creating any new one among different households with children. So that’s what pro-family legislation should do.

Picking the child credit and dropping the other proposals would begin to address Sen. Manchin’s conditions. But he has others. He thinks that households that receive the credit should have to work. (Presumably, he means at least one parent in each household.)

That idea divides advocates of a larger tax credit. Some of them argue that the credit doesn’t do much to discourage paid work and that parents who aren’t in the labor force often have good reasons for it, such as being in school or disabled.

Some kind of connection to work effort on the part of recipient households is probably a political necessity, though, and not just to gain Manchin’s support. Polls and focus groups are finding soft support for the credit, and the possibility that parents will freeload seems to be generating a lot of resistance.

The way forward for Democrats on this piece of their spending bill, then, ought to be clear: Stick with the child credit, include a work requirement — and get Manchin’s sign-off.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.