By Gwendolyn Mink
Wednesday, April 4, 2001
The conservative Republican-proposed child tax credit is unfairly designed to benefit only families who are successful in the labor market. A single mother with two children must earn $23,500 to get any benefit at all.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Praising President Bush's proposal to double the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000, conservative family values leaders Allan Carlson and David Blankenhorn recently observed that "raising children is ... a socially necessary vocation that deserves and requires support from society."
But the child credit increase adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 29 hardly supports the work of child rearing. Instead, it rewards earning power by providing an upwardly redistributive tax cut to parents who work in the labor market. Parents who earn enough to owe income taxes in excess of the amount of the child credit will enjoy the full tax cut, while parents who owe little or no income tax due to low wages will receive no tax cut at all.
Parents who actually do the work of child rearing will have no claim to the credit, as it is pegged to income success in the labor market rather than to the care of children.
The House child credit bill does improve upon the president's proposal in two ways. The president's plan allowed married parents earning up to $200,000 to take the tax credit. The House bill retains the lower current ceiling of $110,000. The president's plan did not make the child credit available to parents with fewer than three children who do not earn enough to pay income taxes. The House bill permits all low-income parents to claim the child credit as a tax refund if and to the extent that they pay more in Social Security (FICA) payroll taxes than they receive in Earned Income Tax Credit.
Still, the House bill is regressive, as parents whose wage incomes hover near the poverty line ($14,150 for a family of three) are most in need of offsets for the expenses of child rearing but are disqualified by the tax formula from receiving the child credit.
Even with the House bill's provision making the credit partially refundable for low-income parents whose payroll taxes exceed their Earned Income Tax Credit benefit, the Children's Defense Fund estimates that families with two children will have to earn more than $20,000 annually to receive any portion of the credit.
Progressive forces have argued vigorously in recent months that the child credit should be fully refundable. A long list of organizations, including the Coalition of Labor Union Women and the YWCA, have called the refundable child credit "a direct investment in families (that) values the work of raising our children." A refundable child credit would avoid the regressive effects of a credit pegged to tax liability because it would be available to all parents with minor children.
Equally important, refundability would transform the child credit from a tax break for middle-income earners to an income credit for all classes of caregivers. The benefit would be conditioned on responsibility for children rather than on responsibility for income taxes.
Republican Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland embraced the call for a refundable tax credit in a proposed bill that would have made $500 of an expanded $1,000 child credit refundable regardless of earnings. The Children's Defense Fund predicted that Morella's partially refundable child credit for all families would lift one million children above the poverty line.
Although Republican paeans to "at-home motherhood" are legion, especially among conservatives, the Morella proposal has attracted little support within her party. Quite the opposite. The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, for example, derided the idea of a refundable credit as a subsidy for "women to be idle and have children out of wedlock."
Although some Republicans, including Carlson and Blankenhorn, expressed concern that even a non-refundable child credit is "marriage-neutral," both the original Bush plan and its House version give the advantage to married parenthood. Married parents are more likely to cross the income threshold to qualify for the tax credit. Single parents, mostly mothers, are more likely to be poor.
Far from "helping families rear and support their children," as Bush has claimed, his tax cuts brutalize the poorest among them. A poor single mother with two children who has played by all the rules of the new welfare regime, for example, will not get a dime in tax benefits until her income exceeds $23,562 annually.
With half of women confined to low-wage jobs and with mothers, especially of color, trapped in the deep end of the wage gap, the Bush tax plan leaves millions of women and children behind. The families left behind will be disproportionately families of color: More than half of the three million African American families with children and more than half of the three million Latino families with children will not benefit from the tax plan.
Worse, the tax plan not only leaves poor mothers and their children behind, it also will drain the surplus of funds that could counterbalance tax-driven inequality with social spending. All told, the proposed Bush tax cut will cost more than $2 trillion over 10 years, leaving little left over for any program initiatives, let alone those for children and their caregivers.
According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the administration's own budget shows that in 2011, when all the tax cuts have been fully phased in, the cost of tax cuts ($253 billion) would overwhelm the cost of increased domestic and defense expenditures ($25 billion combined) by 10 to 1.
Now that welfare reform has replaced poor families' safety net with a stringent regime of work requirements and time limits, the least government can do is to ensure that safe, affordable, and quality child care is available to children whose caregivers are forced into the labor market. The current federal investment in child care provides services to only 12 percent of eligible children. Waiting lists for subsidized care are long in every state.
This situation is particularly onerous for single mothers and their children. Single mothers purchase care more often than do married parents, and they devote a much higher proportion of their income, as much as 25 percent, to the cost of care.
Ignoring the desperate need to expand subsidized child care, the president reportedly intends to cut $200 million from the Child Care and Development Bloc Grant and all $20 million in educational monies for child care programs. These and other cuts in funds for poor families will help pay for tax cuts for middle- and upper-income families.
The message is clear: If you're poor, your care-giving work isn't worth anything to society. If you're poor and unmarried, you shouldn't be care-giving at all. Taken together, Republican tax, welfare, and child care policies advance eugenic engineering, punishing poor unmarried women, disproportionately of color, for bearing children by withholding support for the work of rearing them.
Ultimately, conservative Republican policies punish children for the social and economic status of their parents, negating their humanity and potential by forcing them to stay behind.
Gwendolyn Mink writes and teaches about social policy, law and politics. Her books include "Welfare's End." She is a member of the Women's Committee of 100/Project 2002, a feminist mobilization for welfare justice.