Incoherent Justifications for Depriving the Poor

A couple of years ago, a group of conservatives calling themselves the Reformocons hatched an interesting idea. To make conservatives more appealing to the middle class, they argued, conservatives should promise to give them free stuff in the form of a new non-refundable child tax credit. They specifically designed this new child tax credit to exclude the poor for both ideological reasons (conservatives believe the poor have too much already) and for practical political reasons (the poor won't vote in large numbers for conservatives even if they gave them free stuff).

It's a smart enough political strategy, but it suffers from the problem that it's impossible to defend in a non-heinous way. The architect of the plan, Robert Stein, has made the most honest effort at it so far, explaining to The Week's Ryan Cooper that the credit was designed to exclude the poorest 20% because he didn't want to encourage fertility among the poor. But most defenders of it haven't been as honest as Stein, preferring instead to offer increasingly incoherent and nonsensical theories for why we should expand child welfare benefits to everyone but the poorest kids.

New Justification: Keep Money From Single Mothers

The newest such theory comes to us courtesy of a paper penned by W. Bradford Wilcox and his usual gang:

Measures like increasing the CTC would strengthen the economic foundations of middle-income families as well. To reduce the possibility that an expanded CTC might encourage single-parenthood, we would not make it refundable for people beyond their payroll and income tax liability. That is, the expanded CTC would mean that families would pay lower taxes on income, but wouldn’t receive a CTC check from the federal government based on the number of children they have.

This passage is interesting for two main reasons discussed below.

1. A Complete 180

This is a complete departure from the messaging Reformocons were giving us at the beginning of the year, which touted their plan as one that provided benefits for all families. Here is Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

Smart conservative proposals like those of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) wouldn't privilege one kind of family over another. It is progressives who put forward a specific model of "the good life" and who are using government policy to nudge — or virtually force — people into it.

And here is Mr. Wilcox himself:

As Messrs. Lee and Rubio wrote in an op-ed for this newspaper in September, their proposal is rooted in a recognition that all families, not just two-earner families, “shoulder the financial burden of raising the next generation of taxpayers, who will grow up to fund the Social Security and Medicare benefits of all future seniors.”

If Mr. Obama were interested in helping all families and finding bipartisan ground in the new Congress, he could have adopted some version of the Lee-Rubio plan.

Somehow, in just a few months, a plan that was meant to help all families has become one that is specifically meant to deprive single-mother families. Did Wilcox forget how he used to sell this thing? Or has he calculated that nobody cares if he is consistent?

2. Horribly Designed

This plan is laughably bad at actually achieving its intended goal. If you take Wilcox seriously, then what he is trying to do here is: 1) give child welfare benefits to married-parent families and 2) not give child welfare benefits to single-parent families. Yet, the plan is so poorly targeted that it doesn't achieve either goal! Let us count the so many ways it fails.

First, by using income as the proxy for single-parenthood, the plan also denies benefits to single-earner married-parent families, or as social conservatives usually call them: "traditional families." As a gentleman by the name of W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out earlier this year, these traditional married families are heavily over-represented among the bottom 20% that the tax credit is designed to miss:

Second, by using tax liability exhaustion as the proxy for single-parenthood, the plan tends to deny benefits to larger families, unless of course those families are sufficiently wealthy. A middle class married-parent family with tax liability of $3,500, gets child welfare benefits for the first kid that they have, but not for the second. A middle class married-parent family with tax liability of $7,000, gets child welfare benefits for the first and second kids that they have, but not for the third. Etc. Yet, for a rich family, they keep on getting child welfare benefits for their second, third, fourth, and so on child. How can the deprivation of the large middle class married family possibly be justified on anti-single-parent grounds?

Third, some single parents actually have high enough incomes to get the child tax credit! It's true that under our current economic institutions, a lot of single parent families in the US are poor (not so elsewhere in the world). But they aren't all poor. This means that a high-earning single mother will get child welfare benefits for her kids but a low-earning, single-earner, traditional married-parent family will not! Once again, how can this possibly be justified?

I could give more problems, but in the interest of brevity, I'll stop here.

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: "Ok sure, you've poked some holes in it, but no policy is perfectly targeted, this may just be the best they can do." But it quite obviously is not the best they can do. If you want to create child welfare benefits that only go to married-parent families, you can easily do that by categorically denying eligibility to single-parent families. That is, you could have an entirely refundable child tax credit (or child allowance) that did not depend on income or tax liability, but that only went to you if you were married rather than single. This would solve 100% of the problems identified above.

Wilcox is a smart enough man that I know he must have realized this. Yet he pushes this monstrosity instead, which, if it were ever implemented, would have the rather comical effect of penalizing large and traditional families while showering benefits on rich single mothers!

A Better Way

In addition to the obvious dysfunction of the Reformocon approach (even on its own terms), it's important to always point out that intentionally starving the children of lower-income families (whether single mother or not) is a cartoon villain policy. A better way to handle child benefits is to provide them universally to all guardians of children regardless of their circumstances. This would mean making all child tax benefits refundable or just giving out child benefits in an overt check rather than hiding them in the tax code.

This type of plan would truly support all families equally, a value Reformocons used to hold a few months ago when they needed to pretend to do so in order to reach a specific policy conclusion (namely that the Obama dual-earner credit was definitely bad). The Wilcoxes of the world may insist that these kinds of benefits will make women too independent, ripping out the economic coercion necessary to get them to marry men. But the support for this is pretty weak: the most independent women in the country, i.e. those with high personal earnings, are actually the most likely to marry.