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The Senate Just Took a Baby Step Toward the Feminist Goal of a Universal Child Benefit

On International Women's Day, the good news is that the new COVID-19 relief bill will include a kind-of, sort-of universal child benefit — a policy that feminists have long called for. But the overly complicated, burdensome way the policy is implemented means that on this issue, the Left still has its work cut out for it.

During the coronavirus pandemic, with schools and day cares closed, many women have had to work simultaneous or double shifts as workers and parents. Others have found it impossible to do both jobs.

This past weekend, as today’s International Women’s Day approached, the US Senate voted to allocate some funding toward a problem that has long preoccupied socialist feminism: women’s uncompensated labor in the home.

Granted, Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Rosa DeLauro haven’t been debating Lenin’s thoughts on this subject, nor have they been parsing the fine points — or the radical implications — of Selma James’s famous 1972 call for “Wages for Housework!” But an expanded version of the child tax credit as part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill does provide a small and long-overdue way to compensate parents — especially mothers — for all the extra care work the coronavirus has entailed.

It is extraordinary that those who reproduce the human race are still unsupported and impoverished for this fundamental biological and societal work. Unwaged, in a world dominated by money.

Selma James, founder of the socialist feminist Wages for Housework campaign in 1970s Britain and one of the organizers of the Global Women’s Strike, which helps coordinate annual protests and walkouts on International Women’s Day, wrote these words in the Independent this time last year, just before the global COVID-19 lockdown would make the reality she described more visible and less tenable. During the coronavirus pandemic, with schools and day cares closed, many women have had to work simultaneous or double shifts as workers and parents. Others have found it impossible to do both jobs; as a result, record numbers of women have had to leave the workforce or dramatically reduce their work hours.

The 2021 child tax credit addresses neither the enormity nor the depth of this crisis, nor of the broader, persistent problem James describes, but it does provide a bit of compensation for all that unwaged labor. Parents already get a tax credit of $2,000 per child. The new legislation extends it to $3,000 for each child aged six to seventeen and $3,600 for each child under six. What makes the measure distinctively more progressive than these increased dollars — though, they’re highly welcome — is that for the first time in the twenty-four-year history of the credit, the money will be offered even to people with no taxable income.

All this is more significant than it would be in a better society. In the context of how little government or societal support Americans are given in raising their children — how profoundly on our own we are — the child tax credit extensions will make a big difference to parents. They will lift nearly five million children out of poverty, cutting in half the number living in what policy researchers call “deep poverty.” For many more parents, it will ease economic stress. The tax credit will be highly welcome, a little bit of payback for the overtime care work hours that this pandemic has extracted from all of us.

As well, one aspect of this policy change is both redistributive and politically disruptive: it extends a “tax credit” to people outside of the category of “taxpayer,” a conservative ideal, a “deserving,” racialized paragon. Doing so implicitly acknowledges that whether people make enough money to owe taxes, they’re still deserving, and that raising children is work.

Still, while the idea of “wages for housework” is a profound one and its urgency in any form is real, the child tax credit has egregious limitations in its current form.

Left policy analyst and Jacobin contributor Matt Bruenig has called the policy a “comically complicated and bad policy design,” requiring way too much administration and too much paperwork for recipients. Other critics have rightly pointed out that while it does lift people out of poverty, it only bumps them a couple hundred dollars over the official poverty line, making them still poor, even if not officially so, while possibly depriving some of other government benefits. That poverty line is set far too low to reflect American economic and social realities, and the child tax credit doesn’t do much to transform those realities.

As well, the extension is only temporary. There was a childcare crisis affecting women’s workforce participation before COVID-19. Having kids was already taking a heavy economic toll on middle- and working-class people. Raising children has always been socially necessary work that requires support in order to do properly. That support should be long-term, not just a stopgap to prevent economic collapse during this public health crisis. Encouragingly, Biden reportedly favors making the tax extension permanent, and the measure is widely understood among lawmakers to be a first step toward a permanent extension, though the congressional politics of this won’t be easy.

As welcome as this measure is, it’s worth noting its unfortunate neoliberal ideological framing. Benefits to the private family shouldn’t have to take the form of tax breaks. Doing so sends the wrong message: that taxes are an unmitigated evil and that by cutting yours the government is doing you a favor. The policy reinforces the dominant American idea that taxes exist in pure opposition to private well-being and that the best way to promote private well-being is to minimize taxes. For most people, the opposite is true: taxes fund our playgrounds, ball fields, day care centers, and schools, without which (we’ve noticed especially in the last year) it’s much more difficult to raise our children.

There’s a similar problem with Biden’s $40 billion provision for childcare (also in the relief package); too much is allocated in the form of a tax credit, once again because of the latter’s conservative appeal. While the legislation does provide a bailout for day care centers, many of which have been in danger of closing down during the pandemic, and also provides money that states can use to make day care more accessible, a large portion of the childcare funding goes to families in the form of an (again, overly complicated) tax credit. Any childcare funding is much better than nothing, but the tax credit is another privatized way of helping families, rather than an investment in the infrastructure that could eventually become a universal, free childcare system.

Tax credits sound conservative because they are. Parents should get all the support they need, and let’s hope that a taste of wages for housework leaves people wanting more — but in a more transformative form. That’s why, while many of us will notice our tax credit more immediately, it’s probably more politically encouraging that the coronavirus relief bill includes funding for local governments, childcare centers, and, especially, schools. In the long run, robustly funding such services and reversing decades of austerity can only be achieved by most of us — not only the rich — paying more taxes, not less.

I welcome my own child tax credit. In the absence of full communism or even full social democracy, I hope it extends beyond this year. But we all deserve better.