Note: A version of this post has been cross-posted at Quartz.
It’s a simple idea: to help families mitigate the costs of raising children, the government should send each household with minor kids a monthly check. Unlike a full UBI, which is just now being piloted in a handful of cities, a basic income for children (often called a “child allowance” or “child benefit”) has already been successfully implemented in many other developed nations. Countries like Canada, the Netherlands, and the Nordics all have one. Britain used cash grants to families to help cut its child poverty rate by half in just fifteen years.
There are a lot of good reasons for the United States to import this tried and true policy. On a basic moral level, a child’s wellbeing should not be dependent on her parents’ ability to earn market income. But that’s exactly what we have allowed in the United States, and some 20 percent of all children suffer in poverty because of it. Poor children are poor through no fault of their own, having simply had the misfortune of being born into low-income households. We shouldn’t accept this fate.
Indeed, rampant child poverty makes equality of opportunity a fiction for poor children. Poverty is a massive handicap for kids, impairing their ability to learn in school and literally scrambling their brain compositions from the permanent effects of stress. The weight of poverty tragically holds kids back.
Conversely, children that get income boosts do better in school and grow up to earn more money. Making sure that children are raised on at least a basic income gives them a fair shot to seize opportunity and achieve in school and their future careers.
A children’s basic income is also fair for parents. Having a child is a huge financial burden, costing parents over a quarter million dollars on average. Yet parents typically have children relatively early in their working careers, when their incomes are at their lowest. This makes having and raising children a significant risk of poverty. With more mouths to feed, family income just doesn’t stretch as far.
Our public policy typically tries to support and encourage childrearing, not implicitly penalize parents with the prospect of financial ruin. Yet many millennials are finding themselves unable to afford to have children, a trend with bad long-term impacts for the size of the workforce, the prospects for the economy, and the stability of programs like Social Security. A children’s basic income would provide the support parents need to securely raise children.
In fact, a children’s basic income would finally treat raising children like real valued work. In 2012, when a Democratic surrogate bone-headedly bashed Ann Romney for foregoing private employment to stay home with her children, the Romney campaign rightly fought back by insisting that raising children is real work. Most of us would undoubtedly agree, and paying parents to raise children would put our money where our mouths are.
Such a program would also be great for the economy. Because parents have more expenses, they are more likely to spend new money they receive. More spending generates more growth, boosting the economy as a whole. That’s why, when the economy began to sputter in 2008, President Bush and Democrats in Congress responded with an initial stimulus plan that in part gave an extra $300 per child to parents as a sort of one-off child allowance. Parents could be counted on to spend the money. And when money is earmarked for children, parents do indeed tend to spend it on their children rather than on vices like alcohol or tobacco.
A children’s basic income is also a wise long-term investment in the future of the economy. By one estimate, child poverty costs the economy a whopping $672 billion each year. By ensuring that all children can capitalize on their potential, we’ll have more productive workers in the future and ensure that talent does not go squandered by the bad luck of being born poor.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has proposed a new child care tax deduction that would, predictably, only help rich parents. Hillary Clinton’s plan is better, but would only help parents who put their kids in commercial childcare, and not those who raise children at home. In Congress, Rep. Rosa DeLauro has proposed a new refundable young child tax credit that would go far to help the youngest children who are most ill affected by poverty.
It’s a good sign these issues are finally being debated, but ultimately, something bolder is needed. A basic income for children would alleviate child poverty and give parents the support and flexibility they need. So aspirants for a universal basic income should start where it’s needed most: America’s children.