At long last, Donald Trump has released the details of his child-care and paid-parental-leave plans. In a refreshing change for his campaign, no one can say these proposals aren’t complicated enough.
To wit: Trump would allow families to deduct their child-care expenses from their taxable income. The deduction would be capped at the average cost of care in the state, it would apply to a maximum of four children, it would be available to those who didn’t itemize, and it would be limited to individuals making less than $250,000 and couples making less than $500,000. Stay-at-home parents would get the full deduction too. There would also be a separate benefit worth up to $1,200 for low-income families—who often have no tax liability and thus can’t benefit from deductions—and Trump would create new accounts where parents could save money tax-free to spend on care, with the poor getting some matching funds from the government. He would also maintain the current tax breaks for child care, though a parent couldn’t use the same child-care expenses to claim two different benefits.
Trump’s parental-leave policy, meanwhile, would let new mothers collect six weeks’ worth of unemployment benefits if their employers didn’t offer paid leave.
It’s good to see a Republican talking about how to help working families. So let’s dig a little bit into what the right should want out of family policy and how these plans fit in.
Experts tend to make three different arguments in favor of giving parents tax relief, which many would fund by eliminating sketchy tax breaks like the mortgage deduction. (Trump aims for his overall tax plan to be budget-neutral and claims increased growth would “more than offset” the cost of his child-care plan.)
The first argument, espoused by the “reform conservatives,” holds that parents in general deserve more help. For one thing, children are the people who will be paying for our entitlements decades down the road, so the childless are free-riding on parents’ investments. For another, kids are a good thing for society more broadly, and birth rates are low, so we should make family formation affordable. And for another, though this is an idea more often advanced by the left, helping parents financially is good for kids’ development.
These lines of thought point toward simple payments to parents—policies like expanding the Child Tax Credit or creating a new monthly child allowance.
The second argument in favor of tax relief is that daycare expenses are “work-related.” This is seductive, as it invokes basic tax principles rather than some elaborate moral or economic argument. If someone spends money to make money, the government shouldn’t tax them on the money they had to spend.
The problem is that child-care expenses are “work-related” in exactly the same sense that commuting expenses are, and commuting expenses are generally not deductible. Such costs do have an obvious connection to employment, but they don’t stem from the job by itself—they stem from the combination of the job and the worker’s personal decisions, such as where to live or how many kids to have. Quite arguably, allowing deductions for these expenses would subsidize expensive personal decisions, rather than letting people avoid taxes on the inescapable costs of their jobs.
But at any rate, some tax experts do endorse this reasoning, and it points toward simply letting parents deduct their child-care expenses.
A third argument for tax relief is that couples with two working parents are treated unfairly in a more subjective sense. The way I always put it is this: imagine two couples, each with an income of $70,000. In one couple, the individuals make $35,000 apiece, but in the other, one person earns $70,000 while the other doesn’t work at all. The second couple is obviously better off—it has the same amount of money, plus a nonworking spouse who can provide child care and perform other household duties free of charge—and the tax system should recognize this. (Here’s a proposal to do that.)
Where do Trump’s ideas fit into this rubric? The difficulty of answering the question suggests that there isn’t a consistent philosophy behind the plan.
When Trump initially sketched out his ideas last month, he seemed to endorse the “work-related” argument, merely saying parents should be able to fully deduct their child-care expenses. His daughter Ivanka called child care an “undisputed work-related expense” in the Wall Street Journal just last week. But the various adjustments Trump has made to the plan, starting right after it was announced, belie this claim. It’s an awfully weird work-related deduction that is available to people who don’t work, but is not available to people who make too much money from their work.
Instead, he has created a benefit that is available to nearly all parents. This puts him reasonably close to reform-conservative territory—but his deduction would disproportionately benefit the well-off, because they’re in higher tax brackets (at least up to the generous income limit), and his savings accounts would be wedged in amongst several other existing programs. One wonders why he doesn’t just take the leap: kill all of that, and replace it with the reform-conservative idea of an expanded Child Tax Credit for all parents.
Then there’s the issue of paid parental leave. Under current law, employers must let new mothers and fathers take 12 weeks of leave, but they don’t need to pay for it, and there are some gaps in the law. (It doesn’t apply to small employers or recent hires.) Liberals often point out that the U.S. is virtually alone among developed nations in failing to provide universal paid leave.
Forcing businesses to provide leave themselves would keep the costs off the government’s books, but it would not eliminate those costs—it would basically be a tax on employers who hire people (especially women) of childbearing age. Trump’s fact sheet claims Hillary Clinton’s plan would do this, but that is a lie: like most liberals, she supports an insurance program paid for with tax dollars. Clinton’s plan would give mothers and fathers access to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their pay, up to a cap.
Again, Trump would allow mothers—but not fathers—to collect unemployment benefits for six weeks if their employers didn’t provide paid leave. He claims this can be paid for just by reducing fraud in the unemployment system, but that looks like a stretch. And however it’s funded, it’s much less generous than Clinton’s plan, with half the time, made available to half the number of parents, at a lower replacement rate. (Unemployment insurance generally replaces about half of earnings.)
In his fact sheet, Trump assures us that the plan won’t create any bad incentives, even touting the low replacement rate as an advantage:
The cost to an employer of hiring should not be affected by this fully-offset policy, so the employer should not view hiring women as adding to their costs of Unemployment Insurance. Further, employers in a competitive marketplace should not eliminate existing maternity care benefits to instead take advantage of the UI system. The UI benefit would only equal what would be paid to a laid-off employee, which is much less than a workers’ [sic] regular paycheck. This should prevent abuse while providing a safety net for the sake of the health of mother and child.
Perhaps. But I think it will be tempting for businesses to scrap a leave policy they pay for in favor of one that’s free, even if the latter is less generous—and not all businesses’ maternity-leave policies provide a “full paycheck” to begin with. (My pregnant wife’s plan, for instance, pays two-thirds of salary, like Clinton’s proposal.) A solution might be to hike unemployment-insurance taxes for employers who don’t provide leave—similar to how the program currently charges employers based on how often they lay workers off—though to escape that charge, employers might offer leave and then discriminate against women of childbearing age.
Both Clinton’s and Trump’s plans would punish parents who returned to the workforce promptly after having a child—they would in effect be working for just a fraction of their pay, because they could have gotten paid a decent amount for staying home. For some, prodding new parents to take a break is a plus. The economist Noah Smith, for instance, recently pointed to research suggesting that “Parents are critical for child development,” which in his view justifies tipping the scales in that direction for all families, regardless of their individual circumstances.
If the government must get involved here, someone of a reform-conservative bent (like me) might prefer just giving the first year’s worth of an expanded Child Tax Credit, or some other credit, to all parents immediately when a child is born. If parents use the money to fund leave for one or both of them, terrific—current law usually ensures they can get the time off and could be tweaked to shrink the exceptions. But if they use the money for something else they deem more important, that’s their call to make and the government should butt out.
Much of reform conservatism involves accepting the fact that the government will be providing benefits, while structuring those benefits in a way that allows individuals and communities to make their own decisions. It is perhaps an uneasy compromise with the welfare state, but it’s a lot more coherent than whatever balance Trump is trying to strike here.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow @RAVerBruggen