Parents we spoke to felt a tension between the obvious benefits that a monthly benefit could bring while still wishing for some sort of work requirement. The work made a family worthy of government support; without it, family benefits were considered social assistance. A Hispanic mother in her late 30s ticked off her monthly expenses – food, rent, car – and admitted that an extra $ 300 to $ 400 a month would be “really good.” But, she added, “It could also pamper people who don’t want to work and play the system. “
Not all working-class parents were against the idea of a child allowance. An Atlanta mother in her 30s noted that a dichotomy between working and not working does not cover other situations, such as the inability to work due to family obligations or a disability. “Whether you are working or not, you should be able to get this help, this extra extra income for your children,” she said. Other participants pointed out that for some mothers in low-paying jobs, child care costs can eat into what they earn.
Policymakers have good reasons for preferring administrative simplicity and the egalitarianism of universal benefits. A mother from Texas noted that a strict work requirement would leave out parents who need it most: “Some people work and do their best, but they work at McDonald’s, you know? They are still low income. But among most working-class parents we spoke to, fairness was not seen in terms of consistency but in more actuarial terms: if you want to receive a benefit, you have to contribute to it.
We have also heard from parents who want government benefits to be flexible instead of one size fits all, especially when it comes to the trade-off between work and family life. Even the most self-proclaimed progressive parents tended not to want government-run child care programs, preferring vouchers or tax credits. Our participants also recognized the tradeoffs; most were in favor of increasing the minimum wage but quickly noted the negative effects that too large an increase could have on the economy.
Some parents have expressed frustration with tax breaks or social protection programs that can provide more help to cohabiting couples than to married couples. A participant in Georgia said that she and her partner chose not to marry because marriage penalties under the tax code and child support system would financially worsen their household. Another participant spoke on behalf of the group: “It’s sad that she has to choose between marrying a man she loves or losing the advantages she has.
The feelings of working-class parents about work and parenthood do not easily fit into a partisan scenario, frustrating attempts by political opportunists hoping to harness their energy to advance their preferred policies. Progressive programs tend to reflect the concerns of college and dual career couples in big cities. (The US Family Plan proposed by the Biden administration, for example, has much stronger polls among highly educated voters than those without a college degree.) Meanwhile, too many right-wing politicians are offering cultural red meat. instead of a meaningful family-friendly economic program.
These blind spots are real and endemic. This is what could undermine the political future of an expanded child tax credit. But they also point the way for a political movement that would devote time to open discussions with parents from all walks of life and develop an agenda that responds accordingly.
Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a member of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy. He was a senior policy adviser to the Congress Joint Economic Committee.
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