The America Family Act, Basic Income for Parents, is a Great Idea Going Nowhere
And then, after that moment passes, politicians will find an excuse not to save American children from harm.
The American Family Act, introduced by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet in 2017, is about to become a 2020 campaign talking point. Bennet made clear in a Time interview this week that he’ll be focused on hyping the act’s $3,600 worth of stipends for parents with Democrats heading into a hotly contested primary. The Act, which represents a toe in the water of basic income policy, would provide qualifying parents with $300 in cash on a monthly basis. The cash is intended to help parents, many of whom are among the 40 percent of Americans who aren’t prepared to cover an emergency expense of $400, avoid spiraling debt.
The AFA is theoretically built off of the Child Care Tax Credit, a tax credit of about 3,000 dollars that most parents receive around tax-filing season. But this program is a little bit different. While the CTC leaves out about 27 million American families too poor to benefit from the credit in full, Those are families who make less than 30,000 dollars a year. That’s twice the amount of what a full-time federal-minimum-wage job pays. Bennet’s plan gives these families that are left out cash. The ceiling on benefiting from the AFA credit would be $75,000 dollars for single-filers and $110,000 dollars for a joint-filer, meaning it would benefit a broad swath of American parents. There would be no income floor.
The AFA is likely to be a popular program proposal — and not just with the people that it will benefit. The average cost of raising a kid to the age of 17 is nearly a quarter of a million dollars and, in about 30 states, daycare costs more than college tuition. The AFA might, therefore, help expand the workforce (or at least get daycare providers paid). And at a moment when 1.7 percent American kids survive on less than two dollars a day, the program has a depressingly large population of beneficiaries. Supporting some basic income might, in short, be the modern political version of kissing babies.
The program has also worked in other countries. In Canada, parents get about $5,000 a year in government assistance, in Australia, about $4,000. The European Union has allowances for parents that help deal with the expensive costs associated with raising kids. But in the United States, with the exception of the CCTC, no real cash-benefits are available to parents. There are programs like Women Infants and Children benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and food supplement programs like SNAP, but just try signing up: It’s a nightmare. And the rules regarding the benefits are arcane. Bennet’s plan is simple and experts say it would likely bring some 2.7 million parents out of deep poverty.
Let’s be clear though, the program isn’t free. It will require a significant investment by America’s wealthy and upper-middle class. But those are the very people who are going to need labor down the line: The economics of investing in human capital as early as possible are nothing if not convincing.
Despite how empowering this bill would be to America’s working class, it will likely not pass. Why? Both the American public and conservative politicians have historically been wary of giving America’s poor actual cash, because they don’t trust them to make their own decisions about child-rearing and their home. Few can forget the initial conversations around welfare, which centered on racist and nonsensical depictions of fictional African-American mothers leveraging their mewling broods to buy furs and steak. In reality, white people represent more than fifty percent of those who benefit from safety-net programs and black Americans make up less than a quarter of those who benefit. But that doesn’t mean a program like the AFA would not be racialized in the public discourse. Brace for the dog whistles.
That said, the Democratic Primary may provide Bennet with the opportunity to ensure that his idea gets a public hearing. And that should excite not only the parents that would benefit directly, but anyone who cares about the wellbeing of American children.
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