Robert VerBruggen makes a strong case against Biden’s child-care proposal, and I agree with all of it except for one aside. While the proposal stacks the deck against families with “stay-at-home” parents (who are mostly mothers), he writes that other existing policies are unfair in the opposite direction: “In some ways the status quo is quite favorable to stay-at-home parents, who, for example, get an especially good deal from Social Security and Medicare.”
Policies that transfer money to these one-earner married couples are dwarfed in size, though, by policies that strongly tend to transfer money away from them, making them subsidizers rather than subsidized on net. And there are also policies that, while not transfering resources among households, have a bigger negative economic effect on large households (e.g., modern child-safety seat requirements).
Social Security and Medicare are the main issue with respect to transfers. They partly socialize the return to making the financial sacrifices entailed by raising children. (See here, here, and here for more developed versions of this argument.) They are large, though hidden, wealth transfers from adults with children to those without, and from families with several children to families with few.
Households with stay-at-home mothers raise more children, on average, than households with two full-time earners. So a transfer from larger families to smaller ones works, in practice, as a transfer from households with stay-at-home mothers to other types of household. The stay-at-home mom with one child is an exception to the rule: That kind of household will tend to come out ahead from both the features of the entitlements that VerBruggen has in mind and from the implicit subsidy I’m talking about. The two-earner couple with four children is another exception: It will tend to lose both ways.
But the general pattern of transfers from larger families with stay-at-home parents to smaller families without them should be kept in mind. It suggests, first, that the features of the programs that benefit stay-at-homers are not as unfair as they may seem: In many cases, they merely offset part of a transfer that’s going in the other direction.
The pattern also puts in perspective other existing and proposed government policies. Economists sometimes argue, for example, that tax breaks for commercial day care are a way of being neutral among different familial arrangements rather than the departure from neutrality they appear to be to the untrained eye. In the absence of such tax breaks, they say, taxes on labor income would bias parents’ choices away from paid work and in favor of staying at home to care for one’s own children. Whatever merit this argument has in isolation, it too overlooks the severe bias against large families — which, again, often have stay-at-home mothers — that is embedded in the structure of our entitlement programs.
The federal government’s thumb is already on the scale in favor of a familial arrangement including a small number of children and the use of commercial child care. There’s no good reason to put more weight there.