Against Child Hostages

Conditioning child benefits on work isn't required for a durable social compact. It just hurts kids.

I could hardly disagree more strenuously with Oren Cass’ argument against the universality of the child allowance in Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act. Cass writes:

The critical question is: Who should be eligible? Current federal policy provides a child tax credit of $2,000 per child, but it only cancels out taxes that you owe; a family with low earnings and little tax liability receives little benefit. Mr. Romney’s plan, and a one-year provision included by Democrats in the latest Covid relief package, solve this by making their benefits essentially universal so that a family with no earnings receives the full value.

That goes too far. While universality may appeal in its simplicity, it violates the principle of reciprocity at the heart of a durable social compact. To strengthen a nation’s commitment to shared expectations and obligations, and to sustain broad-based political support, a program should ask recipients to do their part in supporting themselves. Many think of Social Security payments to retirees as a “universal” program, but it goes only to those who “have earned this benefit by contributing to Social Security with every paycheck,” as Senators Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden emphasized in a recent proposal to increase it.

Policymakers should conceive of a new family benefit the same way, in both rationale and structure. Monthly cash payments should go only to working households. The existing safety net remains the more appropriate support for the non-working poor.

This is misconceived from the jump.

First, the child benefit isn’t universal. Wealthier families get nothing. It wouldn’t matter much if they were eligible, however. For comfortable families, it would simply amount to a small tax cut. But they don’t need a small tax cut. Our country needs a better-financed social insurance system, which means that wealthier households should pitch in more. If you like, you can think of phasing out the child allowance at higher incomes as a way for those households to get the benefit while having their taxes increased by precisely amount of the benefit to help finance the benefit.

Personally, I’d prefer real universality — it should be a benefit for kids no matter how lucky or unlucky they happened to get in the parent lottery. And then, separately, tax rates at higher brackets should go up by an amount that would wipe out the value of the benefit and then some. As a matter of fiscal accounting, it’s not important if relatively posh households with kids ever actually receive a child benefit check or ACH transfer. I do think it’s important politically, though. We value our kids, period, and we’re in it together. But we can’t do this sort of sensible thing because of inane PAYGO and spending cap requirements.

Second, conditioning benefits for kids on their parents working is not required by “the principle of reciprocity” and is not “at the heart of a durable social compact.” There are many countries with unconditional child allowances that enjoy social compacts rather more durable than ours.

Cass’ talk about reciprocity and “shared expectations and obligations” makes no sense. It’s a category error. This is a benefit for children. It’s nonsensical to “ask recipients to do their part in supporting themselves” when maybe the main fact about human children is that they can’t support themselves.

This is my daughter, Ottavia. I love her to pieces but as you can see she’s a total layabout. Until recently, she could not physically support herself. And she sure as shit costs more than she brings in. (Subscribe today!)

Sadly, very few children are as lucky as Ottavia. If children’s parents aren’t in a position to adequately support them, those kiddoes need others to help their parents support them. They can’t support themselves and we can’t support them directly. Kids don’t have bank accounts. Ottavia can’t drive or even hail a Lyft to the grocery store to stock up on crackers and bananas. The way to help kids whose parents don’t have enough money is to give their parents money.

But it’s not for their parents. It’s for kids who need parents who aren’t impoverished if they are to get what they need to avoid the hunger and toxic stress of poverty, develop their capacities, and become well-adjusted, productive adults. Anyhow, you can’t teach a toddler to appreciate the principles of durable social reciprocity by forcing her to toddle around in dirty diapers drinking filthy tap water instead of milk. The ideal of society as a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage in no way implies that we must be willing to permanently harm children to compel their parents to apply at AutoZone.

The fact of the matter is that the United States does not actually have a durable social compact. It’s been unspooling for decades. But it’s not because we let takers free-ride off makers by soaking up TANF benefits without putting in a solid shift at Dollar General. It’s because we’ve insisted on a market economy that makes it easy for already relatively well-off people to get even better-off while exposing the rest of us to the dislocations of globalized trade and the “disruptions” of innovation, but without a functioning system of social insurance that puts a floor on the miseries of poverty.

The “existing safety net” barely exists at all. There’s a confusing welter of nickel-and-dime anti-poverty programs. Many poorer families don’t know what they’re eligible for and often lack the clerical wherewithal to apply, much less execute twisting double back-flips through flaming bureaucratic hoops to repeatedly prove their eligibility. As Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan document in their book Administrative Burden (which is more riveting than it sounds), many Republican states riddle relief programs with perplexing Boolean requirements, humiliating drug tests and forbidding work requirements for the express purpose of minimizing uptake. This is not a way to instill a hard-working ethos of fair reciprocity. It’s a way of gnawing away at the safety net until it catches no one. It’s divisive anti-social antagonism. It’s way for lucky people to keep what they didn’t actually earn away from those people. It’s self-destructively spiteful. It leaves most everybody worse off.

My brilliant former colleagues at the Niskanen Center, Sam Hammond and Robert Orr, estimate that Romney’s bill would slash child poverty by 1/3. That’s millions of kids pushed above the poverty line. That’s more than a million saved from “deep poverty.”

Cass’ rival proposal, the Family Income Supplemental Credit, is similar to the Romney plan, except that the annual benefit cannot exceed household’s previous years’ earnings. This would be a big improvement over the status quo. Still, it makes very little sense. For example, if you’re a single mom with a baby and a toddler who earned no market income because the cost of childcare would have exceeded what you could have earned, your kids will get no help the following year. Bupkis. Nada. Zilch. How is it better for these kids to have nothing rather than $8400? It isn’t. Obviously. It simply punishes them because their mom wanted to care for them more than she wanted to lose money handing them over to someone who loves them less.

Cass goes through some pretty excruciating contortions to avoid admitting that, relative to Romney’s plan, his plan would strand a considerable number of children in poverty. This is a truly astonishing passage

This structure will frustrate fans of an unconditional benefit, who see payments to households with no earnings of their own as a potent weapon in fighting poverty. Certainly, giving cash to families so that their incomes rise above the poverty line could lower the poverty rate measured by the government. But that rate is an abstract statistic, which uses household income as a proxy for identifying the population living in conditions of poverty.

Money itself does little to address many of poverty’s root causes, like addiction and abuse; unmanaged chronic- and mental- health conditions; family instability; poor financial planning; inability to find, hold or succeed in a job; and so forth. Effective anti-poverty policy provides resources in ways that also help resolve such problems and push the recipient toward resolving them himself. [emphasis added]

Hold on a second. I’ve got go clean up a window I just shattered.

Okay, I’m back. Big breaths. Okay, okay, I’m calm…


Which is just to say that poverty — a serious, persistent lack of coinage — is a major cause of all of these problems. I don’t think it’s even necessary to argue this. Suffice it to say that, given a couple of hours, I could supply you with a teetering stack of peer-reviewed papers showing that this is so. The way to mitigate the dire, compounding, death spiral, doom loop consequences of a chronic lack of money is to give people money. It really, really helps.

Seriously, though, he’s saying that the wonderful fact that the Romney plan would cut child poverty by 1/3 doesn’t really count in its favor because poverty measures measure money and a lack of money isn’t what makes people poor! And that, Cass is saying, is why the fact that his plan cuts poverty much less doesn’t count against it. Well, no. It does count against it — a lot.

In any case, the advantage of an unconditional benefit in this kind of situation is clear. The mother has flexibility. If she wants to work, she has some money for childcare. If she wants to take a course that will qualify her for a job that pays more than the price of childcare, she’ll have the money to do that. Over a few years, she’d be able to earn a junior college degree. Over a few more, she might be able to get through college. Under the Cass plan, if she wanted to do that, she’d have to plan around the time she’s squandering working at her dead-end less-than-childcare nail salon job just to qualify for the benefit the next year, and her kids would have to spend even more time away from her at day care. It’s not at all clear that she ends up developing more of a can-do spirit of individual responsibility or contributing more to the economy under the Cass plan, though it’s quite clear that her kids end up worse off.

The details of these plans aside, the picture of reciprocity at work in Cass’ argument is all wrong. Children can’t earn the conditions for healthy development and a fair shot at life, and they shouldn’t have to. The deal isn’t that we pay their parents to support them only if their parents can demonstrate that they deserve to have children who don’t languish in squalor. The deal is that kids deserve the conditions for healthy development and fair shot at life, period. If we give it to them, they will become happier, healthier, more creative, productive, and cooperative adults who are better citizens and better parents than they’d otherwise turn out to be. On average, the return will far exceed the cost. On the whole, the people who ponied up for it end up better off and the people in the rising generation will have more to pony up for the next cohort of kids because we made this investment in the basic infrastructure of human decency and social health.

Parents who get some extra cash to help support their kids aren’t getting something for nothing, even if they never once punched the clock at Arby’s. They have created new human beings! Our economy and society desperately needs its people to do this. But the reproduction and growth of our population is likely to be most fruitful if we ensure that none of our fecund benefactors raise their precious bundles of raw human potential in a context of material and developmental inadequacy.

That’s it! That’s the reciprocity. That’s the compact. The circle of goddamn life.

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