The public wants to help families who are in need, despite partisan differences in how that should be done. And they’re generally receptive to the idea of government aid to help with the cost of raising kids.
That’s according to the seventh annual American Family Survey, which showed steep partisan divides on the details, but also found widespread support for providing a child benefit to families.
The idea of offering assistance in the form of a benefit targeting children — a per child allowance or a child tax credit paid monthly are examples — has sparked debate among demographers, sociologists and policymakers, among others, and prompted legislation in Congress. Some have suggested that a direct cash benefit for children might even nudge the nation’s fertility up from its current historic low, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1 per woman of child-bearing age.
For a portion of American adults, there’s some truth to the idea a monthly benefit could boost fertility. Asked about a child benefit from the government, 17% of those in what’s broadly considered prime child-bearing years said it would increase their interest in having children, according to the American Family Survey, a nationally representative sampling of 3,000 American adults conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
The survey, fielded in late June and early July, examines how Americans live, love and interact against the backdrop of both current events and longer trends. The new edition was released Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
A child benefit is “basically a GI Bill for parents. In addition to providing concrete supports that will ease the time and money burdens that nearly all potential parents face, it sends a powerful message that raising children is valuable and essential work,” said Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the survey. “If it doesn’t raise the U.S. birth rate, it’s hard to imagine any other set of policies that will. That said, I think the most important thing about the legislation is that it will improve the well-being of kids and their parents.”
The survey asked about support of the child tax credit, which was increased then slated to be paid out monthly as part of the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March. It found that 29% were opposed, while half favored the measure. When the survey was fielded, the monthly payments were expected but hadn’t been distributed.
By next year, people who received the monthly payments will better know the impact and how they used the money, said Christopher F. Karpowitz, who co-directs the BYU center with Jeremy C. Pope. The duo co-wrote the American Family Survey report.
Adults ages 18 to 29 are the aptest to say a benefit would increase their desire to have a child and men agreed more often than women. But even without the question of fertility, there’s broad interest in helping parents with the cost of raising kids — widely seen by survey respondents as not very affordable.
“I think this is something demographers care a lot about and are watching very closely,” said Karpowitz. “We can’t say anything about whether this will in fact make a difference. But some people say it would increase their desire to have a child.”
The question was posed to respondents of child-bearing age, whether they had children or not.
The trouble with fewer babies
U.S. birth rates are the lowest they’ve ever been, said Lyman Stone, demographer and Institute for Family Studies research fellow.
“That can have grave consequences for society, for economic growth, for the viability of generational transfers,” he said. “Another problem is that these low birth rates are considerably below what women say they want for themselves, concerning in its own right regardless of other social effects.”
Emma Zang, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, said countries including her homeland, China, have tried different ways to boost fertility. France and Singapore are among those that offered incentives to have children. Many efforts have proven to be unrealistic because the cost of a large enough bonus is unsustainable, she said.
The concept of a child benefit has garnered a fair amount of interest in Congress. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for instance, has proposed The Family Security Act, a child allowance of $350 a month for young children and $250 a month for kids over age 6, with a family-size cap for the benefit. Romney proposes paying for it with a combination of killing and streamlining existing programs, eliminating Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other tweaks to make it budget-neutral.
Meanwhile, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, are among those advocating for different approaches. They suggested raising the child tax credit to help families but oppose Romney’s child allowance.
America’s fertility rate has been propped up by immigrants, who have higher fertility than native-born people, said Zang, who was not involved with the survey. Child-related costs are a barrier — and not just the cost of raising children. Potential parents face rising housing and education costs, and some worry opportunity costs of taking time off work to have and raise a family penalize working women.
Any financial transfer paid per child could increase fertility, Stone said, though whether it’s monthly or lump sum might not matter. “The amount of money is certainly beneficial. The more you directly support childbearing, the more likely you are to get more of it.”
The benefit of monthly payments is creating a stable income source to provide for children’s needs, said Stone. Additionally, people are more apt to budget carefully with monthly payments.
Some worry a monthly payment creates more dependency and is more administratively complex, he said. “On the whole, I don’t have a strong pro or con on a monthly payment. I do like getting money to people sooner, so I like pre-bating rather than rebating.”
But a child benefit isn’t the only way to boost fertility, Stone said. Family leave, help with child care or a baby bonus at the time of birth are among family-friendly policies that support childbearing.
One challenge to overall fertility is that so many couples wait longer to get married and start families, said Brad Wilcox, an Institute for Family Studies scholar who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and was a survey adviser.
Taxing business and the wealthy
If Congress passed a permanent benefit of $3,600 a year per child, 52% favored offering it as a $300 monthly payment, while 18% favored an annual lump sum and 30% didn’t have an opinion, according to the survey. Although percentages varied, monthly payments beat lump sums across every category — gender, age, race, urban or rural, religion, income, even whether people had children.
While more than 4 in 10 Republicans surveyed are not likely to favor government providing a child benefit, the other nearly 6 in 10 want aid for those who really need it. That compares to Democrats, 61% of whom like both direct cash help and funding for programs and institutions that provide assistance.
The most popular way to fund a future child benefit is taxing the wealthy more — a source favored by 48% overall. The next-popular option was taxing businesses more, which 26% support.
“The conclusion is that while cash benefits may be popular, paying for them in a popular way may be difficult,” the report said.
Child benefits would be targeted at all children in eligible families, not just couples contemplating having more kids.
Amy and Lorne Thomas of Ontario, Oregon, have five children ages 3 to 20 and aren’t looking to have more. But she’s grateful for the financial help provided by the child tax credit this year. And she likes the monthly payment, though right now it’s temporary.
Her husband Lorne is retired and they’re both putting effort and resources into her photography business, but the pandemic has made the timing especially rough. For months, no one was getting photos taken, save the occasional graduation picture. But her kids still needed to be fed and clothed and cared for and that takes money that has been hard to come by recently, she said.
That child benefit has helped meet those needs, Thomas said.
Couples decide to have children — or not — for a lot of reasons.
Bryant and Liberty McConkie of Provo, both 22, have been married a handful of months and aren’t ready to start a family. But they have talked about it. They told Deseret News they are considering how a child fits in with school and potential employment or internship opportunities in the near future.
They’re both employed. She works for the National Kidney Foundation of Utah and Idaho, while he works at Enerbank USA. But Liberty McConkie has also just started taking college business classes, “so we expect her to have a jam-packed next couple of years,” they said by email. “That said, another of our main focuses is doing what we feel God would have us do, whether that coincides perfectly with our perceived professional or scholarly trajectory or not.”
They haven’t factored public policies like the child monthly tax credit into their decision-making, they said. “We’re just young newlyweds still figuring finances out, after all. Job flexibility and paid leave, on the other hand, would probably have more of an impact because they are generally more straightforward policies at the company level.”
How much, how long?
Among those surveyed, the preferred average amount for a child benefit is about $2,400, but Republicans would on average like a benefit of $1,300 — there were those who said “zero.” Democrats would spend more than $3,100; independents fall in between.
The most popular eligibility cut-off is around $75,000 annual income. Democrats would go up to $100,000 a year. Just 1 in 5 would extend it to all incomes.
“I think this is emblematic of a kind of deeper trend that I see in politics: If you just ask for public opinion on what’s the fair thing to do, the public is actually quite generous with people that are making somewhere around the median income or a bit above it — roughly where the $75,000 to $100,000 is,” said Pope. “But at a certain point, and I think it is somewhere around that, the public is just less interested in helping people out.”
Policy proponents on the left seem to think that “if we don’t have universal programs, the programs will eventually become unpopular,” Pope said, noting he sees the logic, but thinks it’s flawed. Public opinion suggests the public is pretty generous to those in need — “and they are less generous probably more quickly than I think policymakers realize.”
The survey asked if a parent should be required to work to receive such a benefit. Six in 10 said yes for two-parent families, compared to 45% for single parents. Men are slightly more likely than women to say yes. But Karpowitz said the question was also asked in different ways, introducing arguments for and against. Where no arguments were introduced, 51% of those 18-29 supported a work requirement, compared to 71% of those 65 and older. “These numbers change in some very small ways when respondents are introduced to some of the arguments for and against,” he said.
The survey also asked if the federal government should require employers to offer 12 weeks of paid family leave per year. Overall, just over half somewhat or strongly support such a policy, compared to 28% who somewhat or strongly oppose it. Women favor that policy more than men, 58% to 45%. So do Democrats compared to Republicans, 75% to 25%. Differences by income are small.