The mythology surrounding President Barack Obama’s alleged disdain for stay-at-home mothers began in October of last year, when he suggested that mothers shouldn’t be doomed to a life of low wages due to spending a few years out of the labor force to raise young children, saying “that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.” Conservatives wildly misconstrued a remark as derogatory to stay-at-home mothers, with Sarah Palin concluding Obama believes “stay-at-home-moms aren’t worth a hill of beans.” This creative conservative interpretation—that Obama has a distaste for domesticity—has resurfaced again as a result of his new tax plan.
The plan, announced in the State of the Union Address, includes a tax credit for dual-earner families, that is, families in which both parents have an income. Families with just one working parent wouldn't qualify for the credit, a feature that conservatives have interpreted as a penalty levied against traditional households. Writing in The Washington Examiner, Timothy P. Carney argued that the dual-earner credit reveals Obama’s belief that “Moms who stay at home with their children are less valuable than moms who work for pay.” At The Federalist, a less coherent cri de coeur by Joy Pullmann declared the credit an attempt to attack stay-at-home mothers for “having criteria that don’t match those of an egotistical, money-focused alpha male.” In other words, the dual-earner tax credit is being read in right-wing circles as evidence of some anti-family sentiment on Obama’s behalf.
Of course, the dual-earner credit isn’t inaccessible strictly to traditional families. It is also inaccessible to single parents, cohabitating unmarried couples, unemployed married couples, and to married couples whose combined income is too low to claim the credit. In that sense, it also "penalizes" the least traditional families around, by conservative standards: those without two married parents, and those who make poor participants in the labor market. Nonetheless, the problem of assistance that does not adequately cover all types of family units is a genuine one.
The trouble is that the Reformicon answer to Obama’s dual-earner credit is not much better at extending assistance to all families, or even traditional families. Republican Senator Mike Lee’s child tax credit, the centerpiece of the standing conservative counter-proposal, is a non-refundable credit, meaning that poor parents would receive less money than wealthier ones, and that some parents would be too poor to qualify whatsoever. Further, Lee’s proposed credit would be especially ineffective for families with a large number of children, as families would effectively max out the tax credit after a certain number of children, depending on the family’s tax liability. The lower the tax liability, the more quickly the credit would max out, thereby penalizing poorer families with lots of children—the sort of families that conservatives claim to be defending in their criticism of the dual-earner credit.
And yet, it would be a little ridiculous to propose that the weakness of the Reformicon child tax credit is evidence of distaste for traditional families. Rather, the failure of both Democratic and Republican tax plans to adequately extend assistance to the full range of American families is mostly evidence of a squeamishness toward welfare-esque aid, which leads politicians to rely on tax-based transfers instead.
For Americans, the lure of tax-based solutions for struggling families comes from a general affinity for assistance that appears to encourage work. Consider the case of the earned income tax credit, the most impactful welfare program after SNAP. As Suzanne Mettler notes in The Submerged State, the EITC has “found support among some conservatives, who consider it a more palatable means of aiding the poor than public assistance, given that it explicitly rewards people for work.” Of course, the EITC is public assistance, and conservatives are already itching to attach greater work thresholds to it, which would require single moms to spend more hours at work than at home in order to receive the benefit—not because they intend to put mothers out of the home, of course, but because the reflexive tendency to favor work before aid simply nudges all policy gestures in that direction.
But raising children is work of its own—socially necessary and vitally important work. It is not labor market work, and it generates benefits that are difficult to quantify in a capitalist framework. The work of raising children is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week enterprise without a clear expiration date, and this is true of the most and least traditional families. That's why tax-based solutions are a poor fit for rendering aid to families: they fail to recognize that all parents work, and instead reward only labor market work, leaving behind parents who do not participate in the labor force and poorer, larger families. To add insult to injury, tax-based aid for families usually comes in a yearly lump sum, an awkward rhythm for raising children, which comes with a variety of regular weekly and monthly costs. With parents’ jobs changing and new children arriving and new needs arising among existing kids, budgeting for a yearly tax benefit is a perilous endeavor.
To reach all families, and to render the most efficacious aid stream possible, a monthly child allowance makes more sense than either the Republican or Democratic tax-based proposals. Like social security benefits, a child allowance would come at a set amount on a monthly basis, and would not decrease due to parents’ work choices or income, and would not taper down to nil due to the number of kids born to a particular family.
But perhaps one of the most important innovations a child allowance would make—aside from removing all penalties on families of certain sizes, makeups, and incomes—would be to ratify the fact that raising children is work deserving of support, regardless of parents’ participation in the labor market. Like most innovations that genuinely liberate poor people and women to make their own decisions about family regardless of income, a child allowance would be counter to the capitalist logic that so heavily recommends tax-based solutions. But if Republicans and Democrats are serious about supporting families, it is precisely the change that must be made.