Romney’s child benefit plan would support children during the coronavirus — and afterward
The push for monthly child benefit checks to American children just went bipartisan: Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) newly proposed Family Security Act would give parents of children under 6 a $350 check each month, while parents of kids aged 6-17 would receive $250. Romney’s plan resembles Biden’s pandemic relief proposal to send $300 checks monthly to children under 6, as well as $250 checks to children 6-17. The fact of bipartisan support for child-benefit checks is a heartening sign that the United States may finally be moving closer to the systems of public family support that every other wealthy democracy has adopted, and which protect children’s wellbeing far better than our own.
Abundant research shows that whether children get consistent resources critically and permanently affects their development. This research is unnerving given that almost half of US households have experienced disruptions in employment income since March 2020. Households with children, particularly those who are lower-income, disproportionately suffered these losses. (No surprise, given that widespread school and daycare closures require parents to be home to supervise children.) One in five children now live in poverty, including almost one in four Black and Hispanic children. Nearly 1 in 6 children aren’t even getting enough to eat — an unprecedented number in recent decades, and one which should put the wealthiest country in the world to shame. The figure is even higher for Black and Hispanic children: three in 10 and one in four respectively are going hungry. Yet during the almost-year that the pandemic has raged, lawmakers have given parents only a one-time check of $500 per child — a drop in the bucket of how much it cost to support kids during this time.
Inaction on children comes from lawmakers’ long-held dogma about the virtues of a free-market economy. Of course, this free-market dogma supposedly applied to businesses as well. Yet when it became clear how deeply main street was hurting from the pandemic, Congress quickly passed more than a trillion dollar measure to shore up private businesses. Yet lawmakers have still held children to this dogma.
But the idea of socialism for businesses and free-market capitalism for children gets it wrong: The end goal of the economy should be to ensure that Americans, and particularly children, get the resources they need. Ensuring sound businesses is one means to that end, but it isn’t the end itself. When families can’t get children the resources they need through paid work, as many can’t in the pandemic, that end requires that government assist them. Businesses can take a pause during the pandemic; children’s needs do not.
Even beyond the current crisis, child-benefit programs serve an important role in supporting children’s wellbeing, a fact recognized by Romney’s proposal for permanent child benefits. (Biden proposes benefits for just a year.) Before the pandemic, the U.S. expectation that families would support children without assistance regularly failed children. In 2018, nearly one in seven kids lived in poverty based on annual household income — a far higher rate than other wealthy countries in large part because of those countries’ range of family programs, including child benefits, that funneled a steady stream of public resources to families. Counting all family benefits, Germany publicly provides the average single-parent family with two children roughly 29 percent of the salary of an average full-time worker. The U.S. provides just 0.6 percent of an average full-time worker’s salary to such a family. Germany’s funding puts a floor beneath which no child falls when their parents lack resources. In the U.S. system, when a U.S. parent hits hard times like today, children simply don’t get what they need.
But child benefits wouldn’t just serve the children whose families fall below the poverty line on annual income. The rampant rise of income insecurity in the United States means that, even before the pandemic, a shocking four in 10 children lived in households that fell below the poverty line at least two months of the year. Child benefits would protect these children, too, from the developmental harms that come from inconsistent support. And they would benefit even children from families with steadier incomes by raising the “ceiling” of resources that their families could use to support them. In this way, child-benefit checks would help to close the considerable gaps in wellbeing between U.S. children and those from other wealthy countries on a range of measures, including mental health, happiness, and academic achievement.
Recent child-benefit proposals should be embraced for the benefits they offer children during the pandemic and beyond. But they should be adopted without the further safety-net cuts that Romney’s proposal suggests should offset their costs. It’s time that U.S. policymakers joined other advanced democracies in recognizing that public funding plays a critically important role in children’s flourishing. There’s no better use of government resources, or higher purpose for the economy, than this.
Maxine Eichner is professor of Law at UNC School of Law and author of “The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream (and How It Can Be Restored).”