Should childless Americans pay more taxes?

I’m surprised by some of the upset in Headlines to Reihan Salam’s proposal. Granted, the phrase “more taxes” rarely induces happy thoughts among conservatives, but I thought there’d be more support for beefing up the incentives for having children within a movement that (a) laments the breakdown of the nuclear family, (b) frets about declining birth rates and what they mean for the entitlement state (see, e.g., Mark Steyn and Jonathan Last), and (c) would probably benefit electorally if more Americans had children. I can’t find any data about voters with kids from the 2012 exit poll but Romney won 56 percent of married voters while Obama won 62 percent of singles. If Salam tweaked his idea to limit the tax breaks to parents who are married and reside in the same household, with lesser supplements for single parents, would that change people’s minds? What I’m asking, in other words, is whether the problem here is that we’re using the tax code to do too much social engineering or not quite enough.

And before you say “the answer is to cut spending, not to increase anyone’s tax burden,” Salam agrees with you on that. He just insists on living in reality. We tried to starve the beast and failed; turns out the beast doesn’t starve, it simply borrows and keeps feeding. If we’re doomed to run deficits until a debt crisis brings about a reckoning, who should bear the burden of extra taxes in the meantime in the name of reducing that deficit as much as possible?

Yet it is also true that we’ve stacked the deck against parents in all kinds of ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that raising a child born in 2012 will cost a middle-income family a cumulative total of $301,970 over 18 years. As high as this number sounds, it is actually a massive understatement, as it fails to take into account the cost of postsecondary education. It also fails to factor in the value of forgone earnings and career opportunities. While nonparents can focus on their jobs in laserlike fashion, parents are rarely in a position to do the same. Every time a sick child keeps a parent home from work, her earnings suffer, either directly, because she’s taking an unpaid leave of absence, or indirectly, because she’s missing out on opportunities to climb the corporate ladder.

Even when we compare a nonparent and a parent who are working exactly the same hours and earning exactly the same income, the nonparent has a clear leg up. Most obviously, the nonparent has far more disposable income to play with, which she can save, to become much richer than her parent counterpart over time, or spend, to travel to exotic locales, to eat out constantly, to wear awesome clothes, or to live as I do in a conveniently located shoebox in a great American metropolis. Raising taxes on nonparents could even the score a bit, tilting the balance ever so slightly in favor of those who toil on behalf of America’s future workforce by wiping their butts and painstakingly removing their head lice.

He wants to adopt Mike Lee’s tax plan, which would increase the child tax credit, while also lowering the income threshold for various marginal tax brackets. Result: You’d pay more taxes unless you have a kid, in which case you’d get a big chunk back to apply to his/her upbringing. But I think that’s actually a secondary goal. Here’s what Salam is really after:

These millions of nonparents are not good political enemies to have. But does this mean those of us who favor a more parent-friendly tax code should give up? Not quite. Tax reform along these lines could awaken a sleeping giant in American politics, namely the 36 percent of American voters who have a child under 18 in their household. Unlike the retirees and near-retirees who fight tooth and nail to protect Medicare and Social Security, we don’t have a well-funded political pressure group that defends the child credit. It can’t help that parents are too busy raising children to plot and scheme their way to more favorable tax treatment. But if parents were to flex their political muscles, we might have a revolution on our hands.

He wants parents to coalesce as a voting bloc the same way seniors have. Lower taxes for families is the potential catalyst to raising their political consciousness. Once you’ve got parents voting as parents rather than as Democrats/Republicans, whites/blacks/Latinos, urbanites/suburbanites, etc, all sorts of policy consequences potentially flow from that, and all of them have to do with making American law more family-friendly. I thought there’d be more support among conservatives for that. His problem, though, is chicken-and-egg: He wants something dramatic, like a bigger child credit, to kickstart this process and get parents voting together but right now there’s little support on either side to make it happen. Democrats will be loath to touch it for fear of angering the many childless single liberals in their base; Republicans are loath to touch it because righties blanch at the thought of having anyone (including/especially childless conservatives) see their tax bill go up and, I think, of further coercing one part of the population into subsidizing the choices of the other. Singles already help pay for other people’s kids in various ways, after all, starting with property taxes to fund public schools. (And yes, I know, in a perfect world all education would be privatized. Again, Salam’s writing from the real world.)

Explain to me: What’s the issue here? Remember, all Salam’s really doing is fine-tuning a proposal from Mike Lee to favor parents a bit more. If this is RINOism, someone had better tell the tea-party senator from Utah.