The Case for Family Welfare Benefits

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George Will had a goofy opinion piece in the Washington Post on Friday about providing paid leave for parents of newborns. The main focus of the piece seems to be about the effect of such a program on the federal budget deficit, but this focus does not really make any sense because the conservative (Rubio) and liberal (FAMILY Act) proposals on paid leave are both budget-neutral.

In the course of making his odd deficit argument, Will also criticizes the idea of family benefits themselves:

[Marco Rubio tweeted]: “In America, no family should be forced to put off having children due to economic insecurity.”

The phrase “due to economic insecurity” is a way to avoid saying “until they can afford them.” Evidently it is now retrograde to expect family planning to involve families making plans that fit their resources.

The most obvious problem with this criticism is that it is circular. The debate about paid leave is a debate about what “their resources” should be, meaning that you cannot say that your position is merely that people make plans “that fit their resources.” Which resources? The ones in a paid leave universe or the ones in a non-paid-leave universe?

Another problem with this criticism is that it is ignorant of the reasons why our current economic structure is so problematic for young families with children. The basic issue is that, in human beings, peak fertility occurs in the mid-20s, which is around the beginning of working life. This means that people have children when they are on the lowest rungs of the payscale and before they have had a chance to accumulate considerable savings. This obviously makes it very difficult for many to handle the enormous punctuated costs that children bring with them (job leave, childcare, and education).

Family welfare benefits solve this problem by providing resources to parents that cover job leave, childcare, healthcare, education, and some other expenses. This ensures that the costs of children are spread out across the entire working population rather than concentrated on a small sliver of young workers who are the least able to afford them. Young workers get a break up front but also go on to contribute into the system for the rest of their life, including during their peak earning years when they are empty nesters and have the least income needs.

If you were trying to design a good economic system from scratch, you probably would not make it so that people receive the lowest income of their lives during the time that they have the highest consumption needs and then receive the most income of their lives during the time that they have the lowest consumption needs. But this is exactly how the earnings lifecycle in capitalist economies works: young people who have to cover enormous amounts of child-related expenses get the lowest incomes while middle-aged people who have no such expenses get the highest incomes. Good welfare states fix this awful design by using taxes and welfare benefits to smooth out the difference between the two lifestages.