With all the regressive moves the Republican tax proposal now includes, one in particular—which seems beneficial and has enjoyed much bipartisan support—is going largely unnoticed. It’s now known as Ivanka Trump’s pet project: a big increase in the child tax credit that also expands those benefits to the wealthiest Americans.
And yet it might be the proposal that, in the long run, has the greatest impact and political import. Here’s why.
The Trump family and their supporters want taxpayers to pay women to have more kids because it will mean more consumers and demand for big business, cheaper labor in the future as workers compete for jobs and more taxpayers. What looks like a helping hand to parents is actually an attempt to nudge people towards having larger families to reverse a progressive fertility decline in some populations.
That decline has been the greatest success of the last half-century’s concerted efforts around the world for sustainable development, women’s empowerment and environmental protection. The tax proposal, which cut similar credits for adopting a child, is part of a larger Republican move that simultaneously cuts off access to family planning services that would allow for smaller families in a country where half of pregnancies are unplanned, and which recently included one Republican lawmaker trying to limit access to abortions because doing so would produce a glut of more laborers (thereby disempowering individual workers) to fuel the economy.
The policy ignores the trend of economic growth in highly developed places like Japan—which has proven that the economy can grow, despite falling population—and amounts to a cash-for-babies scheme that ignores child welfare.
How does encouraging people to have more children ensure that each child will be born in anything approaching optimal conditions? Even with an increased tax credit, more kids inherently means less investment in each child. The average cost per child is about $230,000, which is in no way countered by an increase in the tax credit.
But why would pronatalist policies have the greatest impact and import?
Environmentally, pushing for larger families is perhaps the worst policy move we could make in terms of emissions, as well as all of the knock-on impacts of pushing more and more people into a future with fewer resources and a less hospitable climate. Our situation only worsens, with over 15,000 scientists recently issuing a dire warning regarding the future of our environment.
Pushing for larger families also has great import because it reveals how its proponents want this country to be in the future, literally, in terms of the people who will comprise it. For the proponents, future persons are simply plug-ins in an economy, and the plug-ins enter from (and usually remain in) totally unequal positions to simply grow the economy for the benefit of those at the top.
That is completely contrary to the foundations of democracy, in which people instead come together as free and equal people to control their own lives. Pronatalist proposals like these ignore every child’s right to a fair start in life, which is increasingly important to begin to enforce in a world where one percent of the population owns half the wealth.
How do pittance tax credits, which treat families like isolated units, close the gap, massive in some cases, between rich kids and poor kids? Don’t all kids deserve the healthcare, education and nutrition that Trump’s kids are getting? Why wouldn’t they?
It’s fitting that Ivanka Trump should be the spokesperson for the policies, given that her unjustified birth positioning relative to others—and political heredity—are the reasons she’s so influential on political outcomes. She is walking proof of the problem—a problem that raises serious questions about the legitimacy of our governance.
But the fundamental issue with child tax credits and similar pronatalist schemes is that they divorce the decision to have a baby—the creation of a need—from the resources required to fulfill that need or the physical and emotional means each child deserves. Human history has shown we get the best results by being proactive and planning ahead—not ignoring needs until they fall into our lap.
Their proposal is correct to focus on family planning, but makes a crucial mistake. Instead of growing an economy and intensifying inequality, we need to build democracy. And that means the ensuring the intergenerational coming together of free and equal people, or decentralizing power and diffusing it among future citizens through a family planning system that builds democratic communities where each person belongs and has a voice.
By raising the conditions of entry for all children, we will continue to reduce family size, increase cooperation and continue our greatest success in sustainable development, women’s empowerment and environmental protection.
Instead of a cash-for-babies scheme, we need a child first and truly human-rights based Fair Start family planning system that incentivizes and also assists would-be parents to have children only in conditions that begin to ensure that child a fair start in life, relative to other kids in their generation.
We need to continue the progressive evolution of family planning systems—which have failed to account for things like climate change, inequality, the erosion of democracy, etc.—by now linking them to what kids need—before those kids are born.
Family planning determines who we will be in the future, and must further the fundamental values of child welfare, fairness, nature and democracy. Those are the concrete and actionable values we should structure policy around, and the values the cash-for-babies schemes push against in favor of growth for the sake of greed.
What would a child-first Fair Start family planning look like?
Recently, Republicans moved to modify tax-advantaged “529” educational savings accounts to allow fetuses to become beneficiaries. Instead, why not work with states to fully fund those accounts for prospective parents and children, including college tuition, through progressively scaled contributions that also require some cooperative contribution from parents, before they have kids?
Doing so would mean a future world filled with happy and healthy children, equal opportunities for all, smaller and more connected communities and functional democracies in a healthier environment.