America is about to do something historic. In February, as part of the Covid relief bill, Congress and President Biden established a national social security program for our nation’s children. Starting in about July, families who have children will begin receiving monthly payments of $300 per child up to age 5, and $250 for each child aged 6 to 17. The program will do for our nation’s youngest what we have been doing for our nation’s elderly for nearly 90 years – provide a safety net of basic income under all of them.
To be clear, this is not a welfare program for the poor. It is a program for all families with children. Couples earning adjusted income up to $150,000 per year will be eligible for those full amounts, as will single-parent families earning up to $75,000. More affluent families will receive scaled down amounts, up to a maximum income of $200,000.
Supporting families with children in this way is not a particularly radical idea. Lots of countries already do it, including Canada, Sweden, France, South Africa and even Bolivia. UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, says programs like this are about ensuring that all children have what they need for a good start in life. One of the projects I worked on with UNICEF several years ago was a successful campaign in Thailand to adopt a national child support grant there.
Some people will certainly ask the question: Why is it the business of the federal government to use tax dollars to support children with families? The answer lies in two basic realities. First, caring for our children is the single most important responsibility that we have. That is true in our families and it is also true as a country. Second, raising children is really expensive and getting more expensive every year, for reasons that are not the fault of their families but driven by the larger economic forces around us. Parents who are reading this know what I am talking about.
Raising children is more than just hard work (sometimes it feels like the only breathing room you get comes in that tiny sliver of time between their bed time and yours). The financial pressures added onto that push many families to the breaking point. For families where both parents need to work, the monthly cost of day care averages $800 to $1,000 per child. This program can help with that. For the poorest families, this extra help can mean something as basic as kids not going hungry.
The cost of the program will be about $110 billion per year. To put that in perspective, that is equivalent to about six weeks of the annual budget for the Pentagon, and less than half of what we spend as a country each year on alcohol. It would seem like investing in our children would rate as at least as high a priority as our drinking. The program approved by Congress is just for one year. Its supporters want to make it permanent.
Money, however, does not come out of thin air. But Republicans and Democrats in Washington have both taken turns now pretending that it does. The Trump tax cuts passed by a Republican Congress in 2017 and the Covid relief package just passed by Democrats both have the same price tag: $1.9 trillion. The Trump tax cuts went to corporations and the wealthiest people in the country. The Covid relief funds are going to regular people, including those $1,400 stimulus payments we are getting right now and money to help schools speed up their reopening. But both giant programs were paid for by simply adding onto the national debt that will be inherited by our children. That is not what we should be doing.
I support the idea of making this new social security program for children permanent. But I also think we need a way to pay for it that isn’t just more debt. I think we should do that with a special wealth tax on the country’s 664 billionaires.
That tiny club of the very wealthiest people in the United States has made a financial killing off the pandemic this past year. Together they increased their net worth by nearly half, to a total of $1.3 trillion. We are talking about people like Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, who increased his net wealth by more than $75 billion off all that clicking and buying we did this past year. We are talking about the owners of Walmart. They increased their wealth by more than $30 billion during the pandemic — but they still refuse to pay their new workers more than $11 an hour.
For that small group of the super wealthy, this annual investment in America’s children will change their lives not at all. It amounts to less than 8 cents on the dollar for all the increased wealth they are piling up each year. Their private jets, luxury yachts, and multiple mansions will remain untouched. But for the nation’s children it can make life very different.
Those who are benefiting the very most from America should be called on to invest a tiny portion of that great wealth into lifting up the lives of those just starting out. What better way for them to pay their fortune forward to the next generation?
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.