(And no, parents don’t squander the money: As Vox reported last year, one researcher “found that Kindergeld, the delightfully named German child benefit program, leads families to spend more on food but not to drink more alcohol.”)
A child allowance is the Easy button for a pandemic parent bailout because the mechanism already exists in the form of the American Family Act (AFA), a piece of legislation introduced, but stalled, in Congress. A recent report published by the Century Foundation notes that the AFA “would raise the value of the Child Tax Credit to $3,600 per year for young children and $3,000 for older children, make the credit fully refundable, and distribute it monthly—thus establishing a child allowance. A one-year version of the AFA was included in the HEROES Act—the most recent COVID-related legislation to pass the House of Representatives.” While the report argues that ideally the U.S. would enact a more robust allowance separate from the tax code, like Canada’s child benefit, adopting the AFA permanently would slash child poverty by 42 percent, bumping 4.1 million children above the poverty line in one swoop.
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Child allowances are not some liberal lark. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a Republican, has co-sponsored a more modest version of a child allowance, and the right-leaning analyst Lyman Stone wrote last year that “it’s time for conservatives to take stock of the evidence on [child allowances] and decide if we are really willing to support families.” Bizarrely, however, in the middle of a pandemic that is causing massive unemployment, wage cuts, and familial stress, the idea has gotten little attention. Although the one-year AFA is in the HEROES Act, a child allowance has not been a prominent talking point and is nowhere to be found in either major party’s platform (though perhaps that might change, as the newly minted vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris is a co-sponsor of the AFA).
Nor are child allowances budget busters. The AFA would cost $105 billion a year, less than one-sixth the cost of the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s without taking into account the benefits: A National Academy of Sciences report found that child poverty may cost the U.S. $800 billion to $1.1 trillion annually due to “reduction in adult productivity, increased costs of crime, and increased health expenditures associated with children growing up in poor families.”
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While passing the AFA via COVID-19 relief negotiations—or, at worst, in the early days of a Biden administration—is an obvious and necessary step, it won’t be enough on its own. You only get so far with $3,000 a child, and drowning parents need more than just cash. One need is for Congress to rescue the underfunded, crumbling child-care industry so working parents have care options moving forward. Another is time. For parents who are eschewing outside care due to lack of access or concern over health risks, enhancements to existing emergency-paid-leave policies would do a world of good.
Parents have no K Street lobbyists with bottomless war chests, but they do have an awful lot of voting power. If Congress can find a way to dedicate relief funding to airlines and hospitals and oil companies, surely American politicians can appropriate targeted funds as a lifeline to struggling parents. If they can’t, then it may be time for parents to finally organize into a cohesive bloc, and put leaders into office who will do right by America’s families.