Conservative Welfare Disguised as a Child Tax Credit

Utah Senator Mike Lee proposes revamping the federal tax code in a way only conservatives could love.

His “Family Fairness and Opportunity Tax Reform Actwould not actually fix the nation’s financial woes, but it does successfully blend failed conservative pipe-dreams and pandering in a way that is sure to appeal to the base. It deserves to fall on the trash heap of other conservative tax plans if for no other reason than it would force single and childless Americans to provide even greater subsidies for couples who choose to reproduce.

Lee’s plan has plenty of moving parts intended to simplify the tax system, but its marketable centerpiece is a new $2,500-per child tax credit, regardless of income. That would come on top of the existing $1,000-per child credit.

His bill likely won’t go far in the Democrat-controlled Senate. It includes too many things progressives oppose, not the least of which is repealing taxes associated with Obamacare. Yet pieces could find their way into ongoing budget negotiations, and lawmakers do so love to look like they support children and families.

Tax credits are not free. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 74 million American children. If the parents of each claim the tax credit, it would cost federal coffers $184 billion. The nation already runs in the red. If the plan is to avoid falling even deeper down the debt hole, someone would need to make up that sort of shortfall, and that someone would have to be everyone else – the people without kids.

That probably suits Lee and social conservatives just fine. After all, they get to penalize all those college-educated, urban, liberal elites who are statistically less likely to have lots of children.

It also would directly transfer funds from blue states to red states. More households have children in states that went for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney than in states that went for Barack Obama. It is only a single percentage point more, but when we’re talking about millions of households, that percentage point represents a lot of tax credits, and increasing. Birth rates also run higher in the red states, and they have more kids per household.

Lee’s home state of Utah would benefit the most. The portion of homes with kids there is greater than in any other state. Red Texas and Alaska are a distant second and third. Lee himself has three children worth $7,500 per year under his proposal.

The political appeal is easy for most conservative lawmakers. “I fought for Uncle Sam to take money away from liberals and give it to wholesome families like yours,” is not a bad slogan for a GOP candidate seeking reelection.

Such state welfare is nothing new. Prosperous blue states have been subsidizing red ones for a long time. This particular wealth transfer differs only in that toe-faced children provide cover.

Having children is a choice, one that many Americans joyfully embrace. As a society, we provide considerable support to them with schools, little league programs, playgrounds and other services that single and childless taxpayers wind up paying for even though they don’t use them.

Broader community benefits justify those investments. Schools create an educated populace. Sports programs and playgrounds encourage a healthier one. That’s good for everyone. A straight-up handout is something else, though. It is not as if people need convincing to have kids. They do that just fine. Babies are born all the time, one every 8 seconds according to the Census Bureau.

The American family is evolving in ways that scare traditionalists who want everyone to pair off as husband and wife and multiply. Fewer people marry today, those who do tend to wait longer and have fewer children. That trend is strongest among better-educated, wealthier Americans. They make a choice, and so do (most) parents.

If the reason someone chooses to have a child is a tax credit, that person’s priorities are seriously out of whack.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image source: Carissa Rogers via Flickr.

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