About That Texas Bill
Form matters as much as function when it comes to protecting families.
A new proposal out of the Texas state legislature drew media ire last week for its audacious suggestion that married parents with ten children should not have to pay property taxes. “Double digits only, people!” one Vanity Fair writer put it, suggesting the primary goal of the law was to reward only those few who reached an apparently impossible threshold.
It’s true that in the bill proposed by Bryan Slaton, a Republican representative in the Texas state house, Texas parents short of ten children could not waive all property taxes. Instead, they could only waive 90 percent with nine children, and 80 percent with eight children, and so on, with a minimum of four to qualify.
Is four children an impossible threshold? In this economy, and with our current divorce and fertility rates, it well might be. Americans today need significantly more than just property tax breaks to make marriage and even two kids feasible.
Critics of the proposal are right to point out that the majority of Texans would not be eligible for this tax break. Quite possibly, not even the majority of Texan parents would be, nor the majority of parents in any state where such a law may be proposed, except maybe Utah. Quite possibly, they are not even the majority of Texan parents; nor would that be the case in any state where such a law might be proposed, except maybe Utah. But this is precisely Slaton’s point: The arm of the state is not merely for chastening those who engage in bad behavior—divorcing, aborting, or engaging in sodomy—but also for supporting that which is good for its people, especially things that are both good and difficult. Staying married and raising multiple children is both of those things.
But pro-child policies, as history has shown, are not always the same thing as pro-family ones. Too often, those laws that purport to promote the birth and rearing of children do not promote, or even do damage to, that which is best for a child’s healthy life—namely, married, heterosexual parents. Child tax credits come to mind; as currently structured, they dole out refunds to any adult claiming custody and at least 50 percent of the financial responsibility for the child.
Another pro-child policy gone awry is the recent phenomenon of allowing anyone, even single adults or LGBT couples, to adopt children. The signal these decisions send is entirely upside-down, as though through the mere act of possessing children Americans will figure out how to have lasting marriages and healthy families in due time.
Such moves are often touted as victories by the pro-family side, but we cannot forget what we are aiming at. Just as getting the mother and her child to the threshold of birth marks the bare minimum for the pro-life movement—not even half of our job—in supporting families too we must take the long view. And as a family member who has spent several years volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers reminds me, the latter must precede the former: “If you want to save a baby, you have to save his parents.”
Lack of a spouse and lack of finances: These are the two greatest reasons Americans cite for why they are not having as many children as they would like, according to research from the Institute for Family Studies. That means to promote higher birth rates, even if mere birth rates are all you’re after, you must go beyond birth by at least two degrees, promoting marriage at the cultural level, but also providing the financial support necessary to make marriage accessible to the average American.
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The Texas law looks like it could deliver on at least one of those things, by making marriage between a man and a woman a requirement for the tax reduction. In Slaton’s own words, “With this bill, Texas will start saying to couples: ‘Get married, stay married, and be fruitful and multiply.’”
But with minimal property taxes in Texas already—Texans pay local property taxes, but nothing at the state level—the impact of the bill may be far less than many praising it imagine. Currently, the average marriage-age male in America is barely making enough to support a small family on his own, even if he wants to. In 2019, a family of four needed a bare minimum of between $50,000 and $80,000 per year to get by, depending on their location, with luxuries such as eating at a restaurant or saving money not included. That was prior to recent inflation. Meanwhile, the average salary for Americans aged 25 to 34 is only $52,000 per year, and only $37,000 for those 20 to 24 years of age. That means a lot of young families may not even have the property the Texas tax break would affect, and may be years from acquiring it.
As currently written, the proposal would do more to help those families already well established than those seeking to start out the right way. But there are numerous ways lawmakers could sharpen the point, ways which more wonkish folks than myself may prescribe, to promote marriage and healthy families where they are needed, not just where they already exist. And if they do, their success may inspire other states to follow suit.