Making Kids Less Expensive: A Conservative’s View
Posted on December 12, 2013Originally posted on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Kids are expensive. I know because my wife and I have two of them. Jack is seven, and he is a very active boy who requires a lot of activities outside of school to keep him intellectually and physically challenged. Molly is one year old, and because my wife and I both work full-time, we have a full-time nanny to help take care of her and help us organize our lives.
We are lucky because we do pretty well financially and we can afford to pay for a good parochial school and a full-time nanny. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle from time to time to pay the bills, because with kids, the bills never stop. We are happy to pay the bills to make sure our kids do as well as they can, because we love our kids (like most parents do), and also because by taking care of our kids, we invest in our future.
In America today, the fact that kids are expensive has a direct relationship on how many kids people have. In a weak economy when kids are expensive to raise, people decide to have them later in life and fewer of them. That may explain why America has a perilously low birth rate. The total fertility rate has fallen to its lowest level in a quarter century and well below the level considered necessary to maintain a stable population.
Republicans have long championed pro-life policies and are at this moment pushing hard to sharply limit the ability of women to have abortions. But while Republican policymakers tend to be very aggressive in protecting the unborn once they are conceived, they tend to not think about finding ways to make it more manageable and less expensive to raise children once they have arrived in the world.
Some conservative thinkers pushed for family-friendly policies in the 1990s, like getting rid of marriage tax penalties, increasing the child tax credit, and promoting adoption. All of these were helpful ideas for families who had some money in the first place, but they didn’t necessarily make it easier for new parents, who are often younger and less well-off, to find immediate ways to help take care of their kids.
We live in a world where it is now quite normal for two parents to work. That normalcy comes through necessity, because with stagnant wages, both parents often have no choice but to work to pay the bills. So, how can we make children less expensive for families with two working parents? There are four places to start.
First, the government can help pay for child care expenses, either through mandates on business or through a more generous refundable tax credit. Some will say that a refundable tax credit is bad tax policy, but we will never have a frictionless tax code that creates a perfect tax utopia. And there’s no reason why tax policy should subsidize homeownership but not help new parents take care of kids.
Second, the government can help with paid family leave, with the costs once again either shared between the public and private sector or mandated upon employers by the government. The first three months of a child’s life are extraordinarily important for lifelong health. Giving parents the flexibility to take care of their kids might be the most important gift we can give to them and to society.
Third, the government can reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to make sure that children get the bulk of the assistance and that these benefits are used to provide food that is actually nutritional.
Finally, the government can give parents some real help when it comes to paying for school. Parents should have the ability to choose schools that best help their kids to succeed, and the state has a role in providing resources to make that happen. Why shouldn’t parents be able to write off educational expenses and get an educational tax credit to use at whatever elementary school they want?
Now, many of these proposals will cost the Treasury a considerable amount of money. But to be quite candid, while we spend a sizeable share on the elderly, we don’t spend nearly enough money on children in this country. The imbalance is startling: we spend about 2.2 times as much on each senior as we do on each child in the United States.
Senior citizens have worked hard to pay into public programs, but children are an investment in our future. To invest properly in our children, we need to make it easier and less expensive for new parents to take care of their kids. Without reforms like those outlined above, more moms and dads will decide not to have kids. And that should trouble conservatives – and liberals – alike.