During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to provide tax relief for parents. But as president he hasn’t yet translated that vow into legislation, or gotten Republicans on board.
Trump’s campaign said that he would provide a tax deduction for child-care costs, one that would be capped at the average cost of child care in each state. It also pledged that “stay-at-home parents will receive the same tax deduction as working parents, offering compensation for the job they’re already doing, and allowing them to choose the child care scenario that’s in their best interest.” It said as well that Trump would use government funds to provide six weeks of paid leave for new mothers.
The central premises behind these policies are correct. Parents pay too large a share of the tax burden; government policies to help families should leave decisions about child care to them; and these policies should not be financed in a way that makes employers leery of hiring or promoting women of child-bearing age.
But the campaign’s specific plan was not well-designed. The deduction would be worth much more to the affluent than to the middle class, and almost nothing to the working poor. The campaign proposed a boost in the earned-income tax credit to work around this problem.
A better solution would be to expand the tax credit for children in two ways. The amount of the credit, now $1,000 per child, should be raised. It should also be applied against payroll taxes, not just income taxes. That includes the payroll taxes that employers nominally pay for their employees, since those taxes represent forgone wages. In addition, the credit should be made advanceable, so that parents of newborns don’t have to wait until tax time the next spring to receive it.
This plan would serve the goals Trump and his campaign articulated. It would help families, whether they include one earner or two, acknowledging the diversity of Americans’ work/life arrangements.
It would leave them with the choice of how to use the money. They could devote it to commercial child care, finance a shift away from full-time work for one parent, save toward educational expenses, or relieve the cost of taking a leave for an infant.
An expanded child credit has a few advantages over paid leave. It would benefit a broader set of families. While it would arouse some opposition from conservatives - the Wall Street Journal’s editors, for example, object to it on principle as tax-code favoritism toward an interest group -- it would draw less of it than paid leave.
The child credit is an existing feature of the code that has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. And the credit has a stronger rationale than paid leave, because parents are overtaxed.
There is, of course, a trade-off in choosing between these policies. Paid leave is expected to increase labor force participation among mothers, which is often touted as one of its benefits. A child credit would not necessarily have this effect, since the benefit would not be contingent on a mother’s working for pay. Ivanka Trump has sometimes made this pro-work argument for paid leave.
Yet the campaign emphasized that it wanted to help families, not that it wanted to prod mothers to join or stay in the paid workforce. And there’s no way to pursue that second goal while treating households with different work/family arrangements evenhandedly.
The administration could of course try for both paid leave and an expanded child credit. If it has to make a choice, however, it should not be a difficult one.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.