Having kids is one of life's greatest experiences. It's also expensive. Between school supplies and summer camps, sports and doctor's visits, raising children increasingly takes more and more money. I should know — my wife, Jeanette, and I have four. We've been blessed in recent years, but I know what it's like to start a family and struggle to make ends meet. My parents were immigrants who came to America with virtually nothing, and after I finished law school, I owed more than $100,000 in student loans.
There's a reason many people feel it's harder to afford children now than in previous generations. It's true. According to federal data adjusted for inflation, from 1960 to 2015 the average annual cost of raising a child in a middle-income family rose by over $11,000. It's now estimated that middle-class parents will spend more than $230,000 over the course of their son or daughter's childhood — and that doesn't even include college tuition.
Ask just about any couple and they'll tell you this absolutely influences their decisions about when to have children and how many to have. As the economist Lyman Stone has shown, by 2012, the average number of children American women intended to have was 2.37, and the total fertility rate was 1.88 — a gap of about 0.5 children on average. Since the 1960s, there has been a consistent gap between intended and total fertility, even as the number of children American women desire to have and the total birthrate have declined over time.
There are many causes for this gap, but the increasing cost of childbearing clearly has played a role in its development. For example, think of families who delayed having children for a few years until they were more financially stable and may not have been able to have as many as they initially wanted. Or parents who wanted more children, but after their first or second realized they couldn't afford the combined cost of taking care of the child and reducing their work hours. The German economist Anna Raute has isolated this "opportunity cost" of childbearing as a significant factor in fertility decisions.
Tax reform is a key part of reinvigorating the American dream so that couples have the flexibility to choose how to best start and raise a family. The status quo means the cost of having children makes those choices for them, resulting in smaller families, riskier pregnancies, longer commutes from more affordable exurbs and more missed recitals.
Families are how our values are passed down from generation to generation. We simply cannot have a strong nation without strong families, and working Americans face a challenge in the cost of raising children that threatens the health and vitality of our country.
Washington should help by modernizing the tax code for the 21st century. Think about it: For high-cost, major life decisions, we have financial products that help families pursue the American dream. For buying a home, we have the 30-year mortgage. For going to college, we have student loans. But for having a child, we have very little, even though raising a child is more expensive than buying a house or getting a college degree.
A few years ago, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and I proposed a comprehensive tax reform plan that started with the simple idea that families, not special interests, should be first in line for tax relief. This year, Congress again has the opportunity to achieve this goal, which can be done by at least doubling the per-child tax credit to $2,000 and making it refundable against payroll tax liability — the biggest tax paid by working-class American families. The House tax bill released last week falls short in this regard.
Providing significant tax relief to working families shouldn't be a final box to check after all of the lobbyists have had their fill. As Congress works on a tax reform package, families must be our priority. We cannot lose sight of what should be the primary goal of tax reform for our time. As the 2016 election revealed, the crisis of the working-class family has steadily grown in recent years, with fewer marriages and children, less work and lower pay, and high rates of disability, all against the backdrop of increasingly out-of-touch, ruling-class elites in the wealthiest country in the world.
We can begin the work of reconciling our social contract to the realities working families face by committing the resources of tax reform to a robust expansion of the per-child tax credit. Doing so would ensure that lower-income Americans will not be left out of the biggest legislative undertaking of this Congress.
Most important, expanding the child tax credit would align our nation's tax code with what every parent already knows to be true: Raising children is the most important job we will ever have.
© 2017 New York Times