Recent Republican anxiety over whether or not to host the 2016 Republican National Convention in Las Vegas have brought to the surface one of the major image struggles between the two parties: namely, which is the most pro-family? As Family PAC Paul Caprio noted, “Parties have images to American voters as to who’s pro-family and who isn’t.” Given how frequently, and wrongly, "family"is conflated with unrelated issues, it’s easy for us to regard "pro-family" positions with suspicion. But it is true that stable family units produce happier, more functional individuals. So if family itself is something political factions can mutually agree on supporting, the question is merely a mechanical one: How do we really support strong, successful bonds between parents and their children? It’s simple: provide parents a monthly, no-strings-attached child allowance.
As a policy theme, the child allowance has precedent in this country in the form of the child tax credit and the personal tax exemption for children, both of which have had broad, across-the-aisle support. Last year, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah proposed a tax-reform plan featuring a $3,500 credit for parents per each child under 16 years. More recently, Slate’s Reihan Salam elaborated on Lee’s plan, arguing that the cost of child tax credits should be borne by non-parents, and that the shift of burdens is justified given the unique import of building and raising families. Similar reform plans emphasizing child tax credits have received the blessing of conservative commentators like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat.
But these approaches all feature the same bugs. For one, they’re intensely complicated, often relying on income-based tax structures with multiple cascading brackets and caveats—a tough sell for Republicans who want to simplify the tax code. Secondly, these tax-based approaches perversely provide much more child assistance to middle-class and upper-class families than poor families, and no assistance at all to the poorest families who often file no tax returns—a tough sell for Democrats who want to reduce income inequality. Thirdly, they provide the assistance in an annual lump sum during tax season, making it difficult to incorporate the money into a stable household budget.
But a child allowance would slice through all of these problems. Unlike directing child aid through tax credits and personal tax exemptions, a monthly child allowance would be flat and equally distributed, available at the same rate per child to all parents regardless of income. By providing the allowance independently of the tax code and without means-testing, the child allowance would also reliably wind up in the hands of the families who are most vulnerable to the destructive power of financial instability: the poor.
Indeed, implementing a child allowance could deliver a substantial blow to child poverty. We calculate that a child allowance of $300 per month per child would have cut child poverty by 42 percent in 2012. Such a reduction would have lifted 6.8 million children out of poverty, plus another 4.7 million parents. Countries with robust transfer income systems for parents like Finland, Sweden, and France have already demonstrated the efficacy of such approaches, especially among the most vulnerable families. In fact, the sole reason the famed Nordic countries have such low childhood poverty is that they extensively utilize child allowances and other programs very similar to it.
Republican presidential favorite Paul Ryan made waves at CPAC when he recounted a second-hand story about a poor schoolboy who wanted a brown sack lunch rather than the free public school lunch, because a sack lunch signifies a caring home. This rhetorical move originated Ryan’s now famous “full stomachs, empty souls” charge against his political opponents—but with a child allowance, families could have it both ways. The income boost would allow poor families to reliably budget from month to month, ruling out the precariousness of existing means-tested welfare programs and the inaccessibility of many tax-credit solutions. Since the allowance would be provided to the parents, the care would come fromthe parents, not schools.
Surprising fringe benefits abound. For poor couples, marriage already represents a financially risky proposition, and adding a child to the mix strains resources even more. But with a child allowance, the financial burden that comes with having children would be significantly reduced, making parenthood a far less daunting proposition. This could also reduce abortions. A 2013 study featured in BMC Women’s Health found that when asked open-endedly why they sought abortion, 40 percent of women said that "financial reasons" were a primary cause. With the child allowance, women struggling financially would at the very least know that their baby would be accompanied by some financial cushion.
Although a child allowance might strike many as too bold to pass, it is less objectionable than almost any other big policy idea out there. Generally, we would expect Republicans to object to it on anti-spending grounds, but many conservatives, especially in the pundit class, have already lined up behind a massive expansion in child-related spending in the form of Lee’s $3,500 child tax-credit proposal. We might expect Democrats to oppose it on the grounds that it provides help to affluent families who do not need it, but relative to the child tax credit and personal tax exemption it would replace, a child allowance would be a far more egalitarian program. The program is thus consistent with growing Republican efforts to provide increased income assistance to families with children and consistent with Democratic efforts to moderate growing inequality.
Ultimately, a child allowance would put our national money where our cultural mouth is. Every pundit and politician promotes the idea of family, but devoting concrete resources directly to sustaining families—all families, not just those in the middle and upper classes—is a public and tangible declaration of where we stand as a society. Here's the perfect opportunity for a meaningful, bipartisan policy with both teeth anda message we can all agree on: Family matters, and we’re committed to supporting it.
Elizabeth Stoker studies Christian ethics at the University of Cambridge. Matt Bruenig is a policy blogger at Demos.