In their thought-provoking essay on policies to better support American families, Oren Cass and Wells King note that child allowances have been justified on a number of grounds – anti-poverty, pro-natal, parenting wage – all of which they find unconvincing. History indicates these political justifications are as old as child allowances themselves. Although interesting from a political perspective, they tell us little about how families themselves perceive various cash-benefit schemes.

We know families support cash benefits but Cass and King worry that unconditional income supplements will commodify parenthood or erase the concept of reciprocity inherent to the social compact. They structure their proposed Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) to avoid these perceived pitfalls. The sociology literature on the social meaning of money suggests this is not the case. No-strings-attached cash through a child allowance does not sever social ties or lead to the commodification of parenthood. It maintains expectations and parents will earmark for their child’s needs.

The Wisdom of Viviana Zelizer

In contrast to dominant approaches within economics that tend to treat money as fungible and transactional in a broader system of amoral markets, the pioneering work of Viviana Zelizer found that people and families treat money as having special meaning depending on its source and expected uses. This goes much deeper than the economic concept of mental accounting, which treat it in very individualistic terms.

The sociological concept of money sees it as embedded in a larger network of social relations. Zelizer, for example, finds poor families earmark sources of income for different ends depending on whether they come in the form of cash relief or chartable gifts. More recent research finds similar results for how parents spend their EITC refund checks and how they view the expectations involved. In each case families are well aware of social expectations and treat cash benefits accordingly.

What Does This Mean for Child Benefit Proposals?

This brings us back to Cass and King’s objections to child allowances on the ground that they might commodify parenthood and violate the principle of social reciprocity. Zelizer’s answer to the first objection is straightforward: There is little evidence that the introduction of cash benefits for families will lead to marketization of the family. Parents will continue to treat these benefits as a type of special money earmarked for their children’s needs.

This bring us to their second objection about the principle of reciprocity. Cass and King predicate their proposed benefit on work so that it “retains a clear distinction between a supplement for working families and the safety net for those who cannot contribute to their own support.” There is nothing wrong with this per se. We already do this with the EITC and it is common around the world for countries to have in-work supplements for low-income workers to “make work pay.” But this does not mean it is necessary to predicate every income supplement on work.

The key distinction is not work versus nonwork but whether benefits amount to a small income supplement or more generous income support for families. My research finds that societies and family themselves makes this important distinction by separating unemployment benefits from child allowances.

Reciprocity is a vital principle built into existing income support programs. David Schmidtz’s typology of compensatory models of deservingness, in which we deserve something based on past actions versus promissory models of deservingness, in which we deserve something based on what we will do after we receive it, helps illustrate this idea.

As Cass and King point out, contributory programs like Unemployment Insurance are premised on the idea that an unemployed worker who has fallen on tough times is being helped based on their past contributions in the form of UI taxes. But the principle of reciprocity is also present in programs like TANF, which are premised on the idea that an unemployed worker who has fallen on tough times is being helped based on how they will get back on their feet if given the chance. All societies institutionalize the principle of reciprocity in these two programs – unemployment insurance and unemployment assistance. This is acceptable because beneficiaries are asking society to fully support them for a short time.

This is not the case with child allowances. As modest income supplements, evidence indicates families treat them in the same way they treat in-work benefits – earmarking them for their child’s development – without any work requirements. As Sean Speer points out in another essay in this series, accusations that families might waste these monies on beer and popcorn are even seen as an affront to the dignity of families. Each stipulation added to child-benefit proposals risks falling prey to the “technocratic, government-knows-best underpinnings” Speer discusses in the Liberal Party’s attempt to influence family choices.

In other words, Cass and King’s claim that “a universal benefit … severing all connection to productive economic contribution violates the basic principle of reciprocity at the heart of a durable social compact” is misplaced. We can and should premise income support programs on reciprocity, and we can even do it to a limited degree with in-work benefits to supplement the incomes of low wage workers, but the history of child allowances in other countries suggests that its simplicity is well worth it and the social compact will continue to be as durable as ever.

[Note: This comment is from a series of responses to the proposal for a Family Income Supplemental Credit.]

Joshua McCabe
Joshua McCabe is an assistant professor of sociology and the assistant dean for social sciences at Endicott College. He is author of The Fiscalization of Social Policy: How Taxpayers Trumped Children in the Fight Against Child Poverty (Oxford University Press); and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow.
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