Parenting is a thankless job at the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s a waking nightmare. Between distance learning and daycare closures, millions of parents have quit their jobs or dropped out of the workforce altogether to focus on family, jeopardizing the recovery. For those able to telework, working moms and dads have had to play double-duty, juggling housework and family emergencies before sprinting to their next Zoom meeting.
The coronavirus pandemic has placed an enormous burden on the lives of parents and children in particular, and yet to date they have received next to nothing in dedicated support. The CARES Act, for its part, provided a one-time stimulus payment worth $1,200 per adult, but only $500 per child. By treating children as if they are worth two-fifths of an adult, the payment structure meant that many gainfully employed, “dual-income, no kids” (DINK) households were eligible for 40 percent more relief than, say, a single mom of one, forced by circumstance to work the graveyard shift after a full day of caring for an infant. The $600 per week boost to Unemployment Insurance, meanwhile, was layered on top of state UI programs, which are notorious for their small-to-nonexistent “dependents’ allowance.”
None of this is to deny or minimize the burdens of the childless, in particular anyone who has lost their job or business. But at risk of stating the obvious, households with child dependents simply have significantly larger expenses than households headed by childless, able-bodied adults. Indeed, children are a literal extra mouth to feed, mind to educate, and body to clothe and shelter. From birth to age 17, the USDA puts the cost of raising a child at about $233,000. A parent’s duty to honor those expenses, moreover, is not dischargeable. By having children, parents and legal guardians automatically assume a moral, legal and societal responsibility to raise the next generation, helping to shore-up Social Security and perpetuate human civilization in the process. Targeting relief to families and children is thus not a matter of privileging one lifestyle choice over another, as if having kids were akin to owning an exotic pet. Instead, it’s about simply recognizing the genuinely greater (all-else-equal) needs of households with children, while affirming the institutional role the family plays in meeting those needs.
Reject the Two-Fifths Compromise
As Congress hashes out the next major piece of relief legislation, they should keep the crisis facing families and children in front of mind. Word on the street is that another round of direct payments is off the table, however that could soon change. Earlier today, Senator Josh Hawley announced his intention to oppose any bill lacking direct household relief, and urged President Trump to exercise his veto if necessary. Senator Hawley was non-specific about what form the relief should take, but judging from the Family Relief Plan he released last March, it’s clear where his priorities lie. “With 30 million children out of school as of today & parents straining to cover work & childcare,” he argued at the time, “Congress needs to provide additional, targeted relief to parents — and soon.”
What does prioritizing families and children mean in practice? To my mind, it means flipping the last stimulus on its head — $1,200 per child, $500 per adult — or, at the very least, treating adults and children equally (as Senators Cassidy, Daines, Romney and Rubio proposed over the summer). If cost is the problem, a cheaper option is to simply make the existing Child Tax Credit full refundable, as proposed by the Institute for Family Studies. At $24 billion, this would cost one-twelfth what the last round of stimulus cost, while concentrating support entirely on the poorest 20–40 percent of families. The Treasury could even advance the refund immediately, in line with the precedent set in in 2003 when President Bush advanced refunds for his own CTC expansion.
Wherever Senator Hawley’s advocacy leads, lawmakers must put those directly impacted by Covid — those who lost their job, their business, their housing, their health care, and their sanity — ahead of indiscriminate stimulus for healthy, gainfully employed adults. That includes focusing support on households with children; children who bear absolutely zero responsibility for the death and calamity unfolding around them, but who are nonetheless facing developmental, educational, and economic scarring for years to come.