This December there was an overlooked Christmas miracle: Two senators announced a bipartisan proposal that wasn’t terrible. Mitt Romney (R-UT) teamed up with Michael Bennet (D-CO) to endorse an expansion of the child tax credit. Crucially, the bill includes something essential to the economic security of families: a child allowance. If the government would give money to all parents, no matter their income, it would solve two major problems facing Democrats. First, by helping both rich and poor families, parents as well as children, it would unite groups that are often pitted against one another. Second, it could be passed through the process known as reconciliation, which expedites budget bills. This means if Democrats control Congress and the White House next year, the law could go into effect quickly, helping millions of families almost immediately.
The Bennet-Romney proposal would make several changes to the current system; the most important is that most of the child tax credit would be fully refundable. At the moment, a family needs to earn wages to receive benefits. But if the child tax credit is made fully refundable, families with little or no income will receive checks in the mail. This law isn’t just for poor people, though; families further up the income ladder would also receive extra money. Effectively, the bill would create a basic income for all families with children, linking the interests of poor, working-class, and middle-class families. This would dramatically bring down poverty among children, as it has in other countries that have put such a system in place, like Canada and the United Kingdom.
Beyond reducing child poverty, this proposal has two other features that should bring it extra attention. First, by being universal for families with children, it would release lawmakers from the straitjacket in which child and family policy has long found itself. As University of Maryland history professor Sonya Michel discusses in her book Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights, policy around children and care work in the United States has played the interests of children against the rights of mothers since industrialization. Throughout history, laws intended to improve the lives of poor children have placed blame on their parents for not earning enough and have stigmatized and punished families for this. At the same time, the right of mothers to engage in paid labor and to be able to rely on a policy infrastructure to support that choice has been seen as an abandonment of their responsibility to their children.
A basic income for all families with kids would overcome this problem. The money would provide security for children as well as a de facto wage for care work. That it would go to all parents will help protect it from critics who scream about welfare. The amount proposed by Bennet and Romney is too low—$1,500 a year for each child under age 6. But once in place, that figure could be increased. From there, the question of how to help families could progress to family leave and universal day care, building on the foundation laid by the child allowance.
It also fits perfectly into a 2021 Democratic legislative agenda. There is a small but real chance that the Democrats will gain control of the executive and legislative branches, with a slim margin in the Senate. Since the filibuster hasn’t become a hot topic in the primaries, it seems unlikely that the Senate will repeal the procedure, which means 60 votes will still be required to pass most major bills. This is a shame: Democrats currently require at least 60 votes to build something, but Republicans need just 50 to defund it or tear it apart. (Romney’s cosponsorship of the bill now is nice, but during the Obama administration, he wouldn’t even back a federal version of his own health care law, so it’s difficult to imagine him continuing his support under a Democratic president.)
With control of the White House, however, there is important legislation that the Democrats could pass with 50 votes, by structuring it as spending through reconciliation. The Bennet-Romney plan is one example, and a larger version of it known as the American Family Act is another. The latter would reduce child poverty by 40 percent and make the assistance a monthly check, which is a clear, tangible government benefit. In 2022, when there are key Senate seats up for grabs, voters would surely reward the Democrats for this financial support. In short, not only is a child allowance achievable, but it could be implemented quickly, would build support for the Democratic Party, and would provide security for our most vulnerable. What’s not to like?