Looking to Britain in fighting child poverty

The Century Foundation recently released an important report on how we can provide more support for American children by adopting a universal child allowance.  With nearly twenty percent of American children living in poverty, a regular cash benefit for all families would provide effective and efficient protection against hardship.

One of the lead authors on the TCF report is Jane Waldfogel, a sociologist who has studied Britain’s remarkably successful fight against child poverty. Over the last fifteen years, Britain has cut child poverty in half with a combination of child benefits, early childhood investments, and family-friendly work policies. In 2012, Waldfogel gave a lecture at Cornell University on “What the U.S. Can Learn From Britain’s War on Poverty,” detailing exactly how Britain halved its child poverty rate and drawing lessons for the United States.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Britain saw its child poverty rate rise rapidly. In 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair committed Britain to ending child poverty in twenty years. To do so, he aimed to “reform the welfare state and build it around the needs of families and children.”

This ultimately became a three-pronged strategy: (1) Promoting work and making work pay, by incentivizing work and boosting take-home pay; (2) Raising incomes for families with children by subsidizing child-rearing costs; and (3) Investing in children via early childhood services and workplace reforms.

Britain modeled its efforts to promote and incentivize work off of American welfare reform under President Clinton, with some key departures. Like the U.S., Britain adopted welfare-to-work programs and a working families tax credit similar to the U.S. Earned Income Tax Credit.

But Britain’s reform did not initially require single mothers to work. Under welfare reform in the U.S., single mothers must work 30 hours each week or risk losing benefits, and are only eligible for traditional welfare benefits for five years. Britain, on the other hand, only recently required single mothers to work once their oldest child turns twelve (a requirement that has since been lowered to seven under David Cameron).

Britain’s second front against child poverty was to raise incomes for families with children. Britain provides a universal child benefit to all families with children. Families receive about $30 per week for their first child, and $20 per week for each additional child. Britain provides an additional benefit to families with children less than ten years old, determining that it’s a good investment to provide extra support for children in their earliest years.

Britain also boosted family incomes by adopting a child tax credit, which is fully refundable for low-income families and has no work requirement. Low-income families with new children also received an additional tax credit. And all newborn British children received a child trust fund — a baby bond savings device where the government matched all family contributions.

Third, Britain invested in children by funding early childhood services and enacting family-friendly workplace reforms. New mothers are entitled to nine months of paid maternity leave. The first six weeks are paid at 90 percent of their average weekly earnings, and the remaining thirty-three weeks at a maximum of $207 per week. Fathers receive two weeks of paid paternity leave at a set flat amount (which Prime Minister Blair took while in office). Britain also provides maternity grants to low-income families.

Britain also enacted a so-called “right to request” law, which gives employees the right to request part-time or flexible working hours from their employers. Employers must consider the request seriously and may only decline it for a legitimate business reason. This policy has been highly successful, as 91 percent of requests are ultimately approved. The right to request was originally available for workers with young children, but has since been expanded first to cover workers with any children or elderly parents, and then to cover all workers.

Britain also provides universal pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds based on a voucher system that provides funds for parents to place their children in the school of their choice. This program also covers two-year-olds from disadvantaged families.

To navigate these programs, Britons rely on a series of community children’s centers. Though these centers were originally placed only in low-income areas, they proved to be incredibly popular and were expanded throughout the country. The centers coordinate child services for families and are tasked with locating sufficient childcare for working families, which is provided by the market, not directly from the government.

All told, the cost of these programs to combat child poverty amounted to 1 percent of Britain’s GDP annually. This was pitched to the public as “one percent for the kids.”

Waldfogel points out that, contrary to the claims of skeptics, there’s no evidence that this public expense was squandered. Studies show that families with young children used their income boost to spend more on their kids and less on alcohol and tobacco.

Some of Britain’s reforms were pared back during Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity response to the Great Recession, but the vast majority of the anti-poverty effort carried forward. During austerity, Britain eliminated the new child trust funds and new baby tax credit. It capped the child tax credit for middle-income families and froze the value of the child benefit for three years. But it compensated for these cuts by increasing the value of the child tax credit for low-income families to prevent a subsequent rise in child poverty.

Waldfogel sees framing lessons from Britain’s experience for the U.S. Unlike in the United States, there is little racialization to the perception of poverty in Britain. Being poor is not necessarily associated with any one ethnic group in the public’s mind, so the mission to fight child poverty wasn’t seen as disproportionately helping any one group. Not so in the U.S. Because of the divisive politics of race and poverty in the United States, Waldfogel suggests that an analogous American effort might be best framed in terms of “child hunger,” “child housing,” “child opportunity,” or “child investment.”

However it’s framed, the U.S. would be wise to take note of Britain’s success combating child poverty. Britain’s reforms are broadly consistent with American policy traditions of supporting working families. But Britain went further to provide paid family leave, child allowances, the right to flexible work scheduling, and universal pre-K. Britain is also more generous to low-income households by providing more refundable tax credits, and to non-working parents like single mothers by maintaining their benefit eligibility.

Some of these reforms are already being contemplated in the United States, and the others should be, too.   With more than one out of six American children living in poverty, we should look across the Atlantic for proven ways to end this national moral crisis.

The Lion and his long game

I’ve been enjoying Nick Littlefield and David Nexon’s excellent book The Lion of the Senate, which chronicles Sen. Ted Kennedy’s remarkable legislative success during the 1990s in spite of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican revolution. It provides a number of lessons for liberals today chasing a policy vision in Kennedy’s absence.

Kennedy’s top legislative aspiration had long been universal healthcare. He first articulated his vision of comprehensive health reform in 1971, proposing a single-payer plan that would have insured all Americans, and covered at least 70 percent of all medical expenses.

With comprehensive reform out of reach, Kennedy turned to incremental piece-meal reforms. In 1986, he helped pass EMTALA, which prohibits hospitals from refusing emergency room patients because they lack insurance. That same year, he helped pass an omnibus budget bill that extended health insurance coverage to the unemployed (commonly known as “COBRA” coverage).

Comprehensive health reform seemed within the country’s grasp early on in the Clinton administration in 1993. But that effort ultimately went down in defeat and sparked the Republican takeover of Congress. Rather than give up, Kennedy looked to build a coalition around smaller consensus, no-brainer health initiatives.

To that end, he teamed up with conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch to pass the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, which provides health coverage for more than six million low-income children. This achievement, Littlefield and Nexon write, marked “a giant step toward universal health insurance coverage for children and a milestone in Kennedy’s quest for the day when health care would be a right, not a privilege, for every American.”

And of course, in his final years, Kennedy was instrumental in constructing the legislative framework that ultimately became the Affordable Care Act, the most comprehensive effort at universal healthcare in the United States to date.

Kennedy spent his whole career calling for reform that would transform healthcare from a privilege to a right. By 2013, President Obama was trumpeting the Affordable Care Act as achieving just that, declaring, “In the United States, health care is not a privilege for the fortunate few, it is a right.”

Kennedy played the long game to get to this point. He settled for positive but incremental reforms that nudged the system in the right direction and helped millions of people.

Importantly, these reforms helped, little by little, deepen the norm that healthcare is a right and not a privilege. He built a consensus around codifying this principle for the most vulnerable for whom denial of care was the most morally indefensible: those with emergency illnesses (under EMTALA) and children born without access to care (CHIP). He extended this principle to those most consistent with traditional American notions of virtue and sympathy: working families who had suffered job loss (COBRA).

With these precedents under his belt, it was just a short leap to extend this principle to virtually all Americans under the ACA. If the most vulnerable have a claim to healthcare as a right, why not everyone else? By 2009, this sensibility had become commonplace, and the ethos behind Kennedy’s slew of small-scale healthcare achievements made it much harder to deny granting the right to healthcare to the rest of the country.

The arc of Kennedy’s achievements on healthcare has important lessons for liberals aspiring for greater social reform. Compromise is a virtue not just because the good shouldn’t be the enemy of the perfect, but because positive compromise today can help deepen the principles that will get you closer to the perfect tomorrow.

Take an issue like poverty or income security. The idea of a basic income to secure a right from resource deprivation is resurgent on the left, with commentators and other countries increasingly pushing for a guaranteed income.

Perhaps this is a worthy vision to aspire to. But we are far away from a basic income being a plausible political reality in the United States.

Instead, liberals should follow Kennedy’s lead and start by providing income security for the most vulnerable and politically sympathetic: to those whose lives are in imminent danger from their poverty, like the chronically homeless and hungry; to children who were born into poverty through no fault of their own; and to working families who did everything right but fell on hard times due to job loss.

To provide help poor children, we could enact a child allowance—a common social benefit provided in Canada and much of Europe. This benefit could start out by focusing on the youngest children who are most severely harmed by spells of poverty, as some have already proposed.

For working families and those out of work, we could enact a host of policies to enhance their economic security: wage insurance to cushion them from a cut in pay or a change in jobs; periodic pay subsidies for low-income workers to boost their purchasing power and compensate for wage stagnation; and more robust unemployment insurance to keep both families afloat during bouts of joblessness and the economy stabilized during recessions.

And for the destitute, the homeless, and the hungry, we must provide an adequate safety net to prevent them from going without shelter and from suffering without nutrition. This may be the most difficult reform to channel political energy behind, as the poorest of the poor have virtually no voice in our politics. Moreover, unlike being stricken with emergency illness, few Americans see themselves as at risk for deep and severe poverty. Nonetheless, there is a clear moral imperative to provide more comprehensive protection from life-endangering poverty.

Some of these initiatives can build off of existing programs. The Child Tax Credit could be converted into a child allowance by making it fully refundable without income thresholds and by providing families with a periodic payment option. Similarly, the Earned Income Tax Credit can be transformed into a wage subsidy via a periodic government check or direct deposit that acts as a work bonus.

Each of these initiatives would be a tremendous achievement in its own right. Fewer children would grow up in deprivation; fewer families would be set back by job loss; and fewer people would go without basic food and shelter.

But collectively, they would also stitch together a series of programs reflecting a principle in favor of basic income security and freedom from need. Slowly but surely, we’d move closer both in practice and principle to a norm that demands a guaranteed level of basic resources for all.

Indeed, Kennedy’s health reform efforts—the “cause of [his] life”—fit into this narrative as well. Universal healthcare is ultimately about security in our lives, bodies, and resources. The right to healthcare is, at a fundamental level, the right to personal security. We can follow Kennedy’s long game and pick up where the Senate’s lion left off.

A universal young child allowance (almost) comes to Congress

Child poverty is a moral scourge in the United States. Nearly 20 percent of all children live in households below the poverty line. Poverty is most prevalent among young children, as 25 percent of children under the age of 3 live in poverty during some of their most developmentally formative years. These numbers are uniquely high among developed nations, most of which provide far greater government transfers to support families and children.

This has disastrous consequences for these young Americans. Poverty impedes physical and mental development; it impairs the ability to learn in school; and it even alters children’s brain composition. Years later, the effects of poverty in childhood continue to reverberate, from depressing the value of a college degree through diminishing adulthood earnings. To be raised in poverty is nothing short of a lifetime affliction.

New legislation introduced in Congress would begin to ease our child poverty crisis. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced a proposal for a Young Child Tax Credit—a fully refundable $1,500 tax credit for each child under 3 years old. Importantly, DeLauro’s tax credit would not have a minimum income threshold, meaning it would be available to all low-income families. These features make the YCTC distinct from our current Child Tax Credit, which is available to families with children of all ages, but is only partially refundable and cuts out the lowest earners entirely.

DeLauro’s proposal would be a big step toward curtailing child poverty in the earliest years of life. Consistent with the practices in other countries, it provides a supplemental child benefit for families with young children in recognition that a new child reflects a substantial economic burden on families.

DeLauro’s legislation is modeled off of a report released by the Center for American Progress last year. And while her proposal is an important progressive reform, it deviates from CAP’s version of the young child tax credit it one significant way. CAP structured their tax credit as a periodic advance tax credit—that is, families with young children would have the option of receiving a $125 payment per child every month via direct deposit or a government-issued debit card. DeLauro’s plan provides families with a lump sum of extra support through a tax refund; CAP’s provides families with regular year-round support.

By structuring the YCTC as a traditional tax credit, DeLauro continues our habit of submerging important social benefits in the tax code. This forces families to navigate the tax system and incur preparation and filing costs to claim these benefits. Some benefits thus go unclaimed, and others are squandered on tax prep fees.

The CAP proposal, on the other hand, is essentially a European child allowance dressed up in kludgy American nomenclature. It’s a “tax credit” in the same way that the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for purchasing insurance are advance “tax credits.” These direct payments are common across the OECD, and there are proposals percolating to convert several important American tax credits into periodic direct benefits, including the earned income credit for low-income workers, the American Opportunity credit for families with children in college, and the Child Tax Credit itself.

Direct payment of social benefits has its obvious advantages. It’s simple, and the benefits are timed to meet family needs throughout the year. American journalist Russell Shorto discovered the refreshing simplicity of the child allowance upon relocating to the Netherlands: “Every quarter,” he explained, “the [Dutch Social Insurance Bank] quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit.”

But direct payment is also a more efficient and fiscally responsible way to reduce poverty. Last week, the Century Foundation released an important report on the merits of a child allowance for the United States. TCF found that a child allowance that provides $2,500 per child annually for all families would lift 5.5 million kids out of poverty and reduce the child poverty rate by more than a third.

Importantly, TCF also found that a child allowance would have more anti-poverty impact than an equivalent increase in spending on our current Child Tax Credit. “A dollar invested in a universal child allowance,” the report finds, “would do more to reduce child poverty than a dollar spent on an expanded child tax credit.” For instance, TCF found that a $2,500 child allowance would cost an additional $109 billion per year and would cut child poverty by 5.1 percent. On the other hand, a $4,000 Child Tax Credit would cost an additional $101 billion per year while cutting child poverty by only 1.2 percent. This is because a child allowance would reach all families, including those with little or no income, and would thus rescue more children from deep poverty.

While child allowances are common overseas, they have not been widely debated in the United States. Nonetheless, the TCF report joins a small but growing chorus of adherents pushing for such a policy to combat insidious American childhood poverty.

Increasingly, policy thinkers are recognizing not just the damage done by child poverty, but also the merits of cash aid to families. Studies of children in families receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit, Cherokee casino payments, and other external or governmental windfalls all show clear benefits accruing to children when their households receive a boost in income.

Cash assistance helps relieve the deprivation of children in poverty. This is a moral imperative, and our policy must act to address this deprivation. But child poverty also amounts to an annual $672 billion drag on the economy (nearly 4 percent of GDP) so relieving this poverty has positive effects for the broader economy as well. Investments in young children are thought to save massive sums of money over the long run, which makes the fiscal case for cash assistance to these children today look even better. (Note that TCF did not rely on the macroeconomic effects of a child allowance to offset the projected cost in its report.)

The United States currently tolerates an unconscionable level of hardship and suffering among children. We must act to protect children from poverty and the lifelong ravages it inflicts. Rep. DeLauro’s proposal is a bold step in the right direction. Though it falls short of a regularly timed child allowance, it does reach the poorest and most vulnerable families, and may be the best policy that our political system can bear right now.

Ultimately, we should consider a universal cash allowance for all American children. But providing urgently needed support for our youngest citizens is a good place to start.

Conservatism’s working class blues

In 2004, Thomas Frank set off a firestorm of debate with his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? He explored the question of why working-class white voters in America’s heartland insisted on supporting conservative candidates, even when such support might cut against their own economic interests. Frank’s answer was that conservatives were duping these voters by raising the salience of social wedge issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In the years since Frank’s book became a touchstone in liberal circles, conservatives have consistently blasted Frank’s thesis as a condescending and elitist anthropologic dive in to the Heartland’s psychology. It exposed the “smug superiority on the left,” they said. Even today, they condemn Frank’s narrow vision of what’s good for the working class: “To Frank, the idea that voters might have interests beyond their economic status was unthinkable.”

Regardless of whether one accepted Frank’s theory, he was early detecting a certain angst in the Heartland. The possibly curious voting patterns were simply an indicator that something was awry.

We are now learning that Frank may have had his thumb near the pulse of a deeper crisis than we knew. In November, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a jarring study finding that the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans had singularly and sharply increased over the last decade and a half. The authors found that “poisonings” and suicides among this population had spiraled to previously unseen heights. People were medicating themselves, abusing opioids, and, increasingly, ending their lives.

Deaton speculated that these Americans had “lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress.” Traditional working class jobs like manufacturing had vanished. Access to economic opportunity with basic education was once the norm, but was now nonexistent. Despair in the heartland and among the working class was producing tangible and terrifying human devastation, the economists found.

At the same time, the Trump phenomenon was sweeping through this very population. Trump was trouncing in the counties with the highest middle-aged white mortality rates. He was winning county after county with the least college diplomas; the most people out of work; and the greatest loss of manufacturing employment. In short, Trump was cleaning up in Case-and-Deaton Country: the places without jobs, education, or hope—the places where people were quite literally dying from despair.

Establishment conservatives, of course, have been tearing their collective hair out over the rise of Trump. They’ve pleaded with voters to see through his con routine and reject his strongman show, marshaling all of the intellectual firepower in their arsenal against Trump’s march to the nomination. Suddenly, there was a test of the allegiance of the conservative elite to the white working-class they had long professed to defend.

So what does the conservative elite think of the communities they used to lionize as “real America” now that they insist on supporting a candidate they loathe? Enter the National Review’s Kevin Williamson:

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.”

When the Twittersphere collectively gasped in horror at Williamson’s denunciation, the National Review only doubled down, sneering at the “self-destructive moral failures” of “millions of Americans [that] aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. [. . .] Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.”

Paul Krugman rightly connects this sentiment to Mitt Romney’s contempt for the 47 percent of Americans who make too little to owe federal income taxes, and to Speaker Paul Ryan’s critique of our social safety net as a coddling “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” “Stripped down to its essence,” Krugman concludes, “the G.O.P. elite view is that working-class America faces a crisis, not of opportunity, but of values.”

Simply put, this is the go-to conservative diagnosis of widespread crisis among those caught in the lower rungs of the social ladder. When evaluating (predominantly black) urban poverty, Ryan once warned that “[w]e have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” And when assessing what ails the unemployed, former Speaker John Boehner said the jobless would “rather just sit around” and coast off of public benefits.

Conservatives have been tsk-tsk’ing the morals of the urban poor and the jobless for years. Never mind that disability rolls have swelled in close correlation to the exodus of blue-collar jobs. Never mind that slashing unemployment benefits does nothing to aid the job search process. And never mind that the supposed cultural rot conservatives detect in poor African-American communities can overwhelmingly be traced to pervasive systemic disadvantage. When a community is in need, conservatives can almost always find a moral failing lurking close behind.

Yet this begs the fundamental question of whether a community’s moral anguish is the cause or the effect of its suffering. To Williamson and others, the white working class has “lost the narrative of their lives” because they picked up heroin needles, crushed OxyContin, and pulled one over on the Social Security office. End of story.

But under a more sympathetic—and, to my mind, more compelling—view of these communities, something has caused them to lose the narrative of their lives, and in response, they have stood numb as work disappeared, have resorted to disability checks just to make ends meet, and have increasingly succumbed to drug abuse or worse. The sky-high rate of poisonings, the futile search for meaningful work, and the alarming frequency of self-inflicted harm are indicators of a deeper existential crisis—a loss of self-value from far-reaching systemic upheaval. The dispiriting data uncovered by Case and Deaton are the symptoms, not the underlying disease.

What Case and Deaton want to discover—and what liberal policymakers want to fix—is that something: the root cause of this despair and these unmoored bearings. It’s undoubtedly too late to return to the ‘60s and on-shore a vast and job-intensive well-paying manufacturing sector. But if nothing else, we can craft a modern social insurance system to match the volatility and realities of 21st century capitalism. Indeed, if we want to reap the tremendous gains of such an economy, we have a moral obligation to cushion those whom it inevitably fails.

But if the determinative moral failing is the individual’s (or the community’s), then conservatives can rest easy while doing little to remedy the plight. And that’s the causation they’ve largely chosen: the cause of a community’s pathology is the community’s insistence on being pathologic. The fix is for the community to simply stop acting in pathologic ways.

It’s a diagnosis that confers agency and abhors dependency, it’s claimed. But how convenient that this theory of what ails the working class so neatly fits within the contours of the laissez-faire free-marketeering predisposition of conservatism. It’s a theory that lets conservatism wash its hands of the struggle of the dispossessed. Why alleviate hardship when you can moralize as it festers?

Conservatism has long claimed to defend the working class and the rural heartland from the snobbery of self-styled liberal elites. Now we know that these communities are suffering immensely in the twenty-first century. And the suffering has grown so acute that these communities have latched on in great numbers to a duplicitous and vulgar anti-politician who gives uninhibited voice to their rage and sense of past greatness lost.

Rather than defend these communities, some conservatives are turning their fire on them. “They deserve to die,” Williamson snorts. Which suggests that Frank was onto something all along. The white working class believed that conservatism had its back. But if there was ever any doubt, now it’s becoming clear: when times grow tough, too often the first instinct of conservatism is to cast judgment rather than to extend a helping hand.

The higher education tax on working families

Over the course of the Democratic presidential primary campaign, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have elevated the issue of the ever-growing cost of college. They have sparred over how to make higher education more accessible to low-income students, and whether higher education should be universally free or simply guarantee that students can attend without incurring debt.

What has gone somewhat understated during the course of the debate is the full severity of the burden that exorbitant college tuition imposes not just on today’s students and recent graduates, but on all American working families. And this burden isn’t just a temporary hit around college years, but in fact dogs families for most of their working lives.

First, some background numbers: The average cost of a four-year degree with room and board at an in-state public college is now nearly $80,000. For a private college, it’s more than $130,000—and many elite colleges are much more. As tuition rises, each college graduating class becomes the most highly indebted in history. In the class of 2015, for example, 71 percent of students graduated with debt, carrying an average student debt load of $35,000.

This staggering debt load tells us several things. Most obviously, it imposes an immediate financial burden on young people as soon as they hit the workforce. It they’re lucky, they will have six months to begin repaying their loans. But the weight of these loans causes more and more young people to defer purchases of cars and homes, and likely delays them from marriage and having children.

But it also means that families cannot keep up with the rising cost of college. It’s absurd to expect the average American family to finance some $100,000 (and growing) in education for each of their children during a time when median incomes have been stagnant for generations and economic insecurity has only deepened. But both social norms and federal financial aid policy ingrain an expectation that most families will contribute some of the cost of college, and that families should save early and often for their children’s degrees.

Yet four out of five Americans now experience a bout of unemployment or other economic hardship at some point during their careers. During hard times, many families face little choice but to dip into their college savings just to get by. Students are left taking on more debt, and families are helpless to prevent it because, despite their best efforts, years of hard savings can be wiped away by an economic downturn that costs them their job.

So let’s follow a 2015 college graduate through the course of her working life. On a standard repayment plan, she’ll need ten years to repay her student loans, finally paying off her education when she’s in her early thirties. She’ll then likely soon need to begin saving for her own children’s college education, in the hopes of relieving them from a debt load like her own. But there’s an eighty percent chance that her and her spouse fall into joblessness at some point, and the family may have to spend money saved for college to cover basic expenses. This causes her children to take on more student loans than they would otherwise, graduating with higher debt, and the cycle repeats.

All told, the unbearable cost of college imposes a perpetual education tax on working families. First, they spend a decade or more paying off their own debt; then they spend the following decade or two saving, often in vain, for their own children’s education.

And this is truly a tax, as government has systematically disinvested in higher education for thirty years. As states reduce financing for public colleges, the cost of attendance is shifted on to the backs of working families and students.

We can argue about how to fix this—about whether college should be free for all or should be means-tested and guaranteed debt-free. The escalating cost of college resembles the struggle to contain healthcare costs, so perhaps similar reforms are needed to control college costs.

But one thing is certain: The burdens of the current system are unsustainable for a healthy economy. Higher education has become a necessary credential to have a shot at a decent middle-class life, but we’ve made affording that credential an exhausting, depleting ordeal for millions of families.