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Marco Rubio and Mike Lee Want You to Have Kids—Unless You're Poor

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

On Wednesday, Republican senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio released the latest version of their Reformocon tax plan. Like all prior iterations, the rationale provided for creating a new Child Tax Credit is entirely inconsistent with its proposed policy. While Reformocons claim that their Child Tax Credit is meant to relieve parents from payroll tax burdens, the policy fails to meet this goal. In the newly released tax plan, Rubio and Lee write:

Under current law, Social Security and Medicare, the old-age entitlement programs, are funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, not according to long-term payments into the system. As parents simultaneously pay payroll taxes while also paying to raise the next generation that will pay payroll taxes, parents pay more into the old-age entitlement systems. This creates a situation known as the “Parent Tax Penalty” where parents pay more, but are not compensated for these payments.

According to this Parent Tax Penalty theory, parents effectively pay payroll taxes twice: once themselves, and once via the payroll taxes their children pay when they grow up and enter the labor force. To remedy this unfairness, the Reformocons claim we need to compensate parents for the future payroll taxes of their children. Yet the $2,500 Child Tax Credit proposed by Lee and Rubio does not actually do this. At least not for parents who need the most help.

The Reformocon tax proposal is intentionally designed to exclude the poorest 20 percent of families from these new child benefits, as plan architect Robert Stein previously explained. According to Stein, the plan is intentionally "not designed to encourage fertility in the poor over and above what we already do," meaning that its disproportionate boost to the wealthy is a piece of social engineering, not an unintended facet of the policy. But this sort of deprivation is deeply at odds with the stated Parent Tax Penalty rationale. After all, poor parents raise children that go on to pay payroll taxes and therefore suffer the Parent Tax Penalty. Yet under this plan, they receive little to no relief from that monetary penalty—lest they find it easier to give birth and raise children.

Because the plan is specifically designed to penalize poor families and their children, it incidentally penalizes traditional families (defined as those with a single breadwinner and a stay-at-home parent), young families, and large families as well.

Traditional families are deprived because they are much more likely to be low-income, on account of having a single household earner. In fact, figures produced by W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project show that a whopping 54% of married families in the bottom quintile of income are traditional families. Young families suffer similarly on account of being at the very beginning of their careers, and are much more likely to find themselves in and around the bottom of their respective pay scales. This lifecycle pattern of income is why 25-year-olds are 94 percent more likely to be impoverished than 64-year-olds, and why 1-year-olds are 40 percent more likely to live in poverty than 15-year-olds. Large families are penalized because they tend to to run out of child tax credits to claim, due to their size.

Taken together, this pattern reveals a very disturbing fact about the kind of family Reformocons value. Those who stand to gain the most from the new credit are small, high-income, dual-earning families that delay childbearing until they are advanced in their careers. This model describes many of the urban professionals who crafted the plan, but it is far from the familial reality of working class people who are most in need of financial assistance to care for their children. Rubio and Lee's plan simply does not benefit those who need the most help, or even live up to their own claims of payroll tax relief. 

Reformocon advocates will deny that the plan has any such preference; many of them will falsely deny that it penalizes any families at all. But even leaving aside Reformocon social engineering, the fact remains that they’ve produced a plan in which some families get relief from the Parent Tax Penalty while others do not.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. A universal cash benefit per child would eliminate the penalties the Reformocon plan would impose on the aforementioned family types. Which is perhaps why the strategy appears to be gaining steam, most recently in the form of a glowing write-up by Clio Chang and Jeff Madrick at The Century Foundation. How the final Reformocon plan approaches traditional, young, and large families will indicate whether it is more about helping families raise kids—or more about encouraging certain people to reproduce.