The stay-at-home mommy wars: What both Obama and Republicans get wrong

It's about class, not culture

(Image credit: "Il Desinare Della Vedova," by Gaetano Chierici. (Christie's Images/Corbis))

President Obama's tax proposal to help working families had barely left the presidential podium before critics pounced. And with that began the stay-at-home mommy wars. But don't be fooled into thinking this is a typical left vs. right argument about culture: it's about a bipartisan failure to help the lower class.

Obama’s proposal would bulk up the tax credit for child care expenses and provide a new tax credit for families with two earners. Because the tax credits would be of no use to families in which one parent stays home and doesn’t earn a taxable income, conservative journalists saw the plan as implicitly derogatory to traditional families and stay-at-home moms. The proposal is a declaration that "moms who stay at home with their children are less valuable than moms who work for pay," according to Tim Carney. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry called it a progressive statement "about what the good society looks like" — and it’s families in which both parents work.

The first problem with this critique is that our tax code is already biased to help married families with one earner in numerous other ways, so Obama’s plan could be seen as a corrective rather than an affront. The president has also previously proposed expanding the child tax credit, which would help single- and dual-earner families with children alike.

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More importantly, however, Republican proposals have their own problems on this score. As Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out, the new form of child tax credit Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) proposed is not refundable, which means it likely will not help lower-income families, since they often have little to no income tax liability. (Lee's credit can be credited against the payroll tax, which is smart — but still of limited help, because state and local taxes are what really wallop the lower class.) Indeed, refundability is the key to making tax credits work for the less fortunate, and conservatives are depressingly uncomfortable with the feature.

That said, Obama cannot be allowed a pass here either. Neither his new tax credit for second earners or for child care expenses are refundable. Which is bizarre, frankly. The basic logic of the credits is understandable: families put both parents into the workforce to earn more income and get ahead economically. But that comes with costs, like commuting to work and finding care for the kids. Those costs are prohibitive for lower-income families, which means they can't have both parents working, which precludes them from upward mobility. But if they can't make use of Obama's credits either, what's the point?

To see the full extent of the contradiction, we can look at new numbers Brad Wilcox put together over at the Family Studies Institute. According to data he pulled from the American Community Survey, families in which only one parent works are disproportionately to be found in the poorest two-fifths of married households.

In other words, the connective tissue underlying both parties' failure with regards to stay-at-home moms is not culture or values or lifestyle choices — it's class. The fight between proponents and opponents of Obama's new proposal is a fight over whether to give middle- and upper-class families with two earners more tax relief, or give it to middle- and upper-class families with one earner. Lower-class families of all stripes are being shoved to the periphery of the discussion.

As Robert VerBruggen has proposed, a better way to help families of all types up and down the income ladder would be to bulk up the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. (And definitely keep Sen. Lee's applicability to the payroll tax as well.) The cash could be used to cover child care costs or to boost household income while one parent stays home, as each individual family sees fit.

Or better yet, as Bruenig rightly concluded, is a child allowance: a simple check from the government per child, with no work requirements, that's the same for every family regardless of income level. It would acknowledge the fact that — as family-conscious conservatives and liberal feminists alike observe — the work of making a home is profoundly valuable to the economy and society even if it isn't rewarded by the markets. It would also avoid the strange, roundabout strategy of using the tax returns of the spouse who does labor in the market to compensate the spouse laboring outside the market. Lastly, it could also be folded into a public day care system to provide families maximum flexibility, as some Nordic countries already do.

The economic realities of stay-at-home moms mean both left and right need to rethink their policies. And conservatives need to stop taking umbrage over cultural identity spats that are of no use to any family — traditional or not — that isn't already well-to-do.

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