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Punishing children because of the unemployment of their parents is senseless

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Will Wilkinson has an excellent response to Oren Cass’s assertions that it’s “atomism” to provide cash aid to families whose parents aren’t currently working:

When she lived with us, my grandma usually couldn’t recognize me or my sisters. My mom, who was a tough nurse with a thick callous, cried nearly every day when, nearly every day, her mother said to her, “Dorothy, you look so old.” This is brutal, joyless, thankless work; it can be far harder than looking after a six-year-old and I think my mom aged half a decade that year. She did it anyway, out of love. My grandmother was confused, sometimes paranoid and very often afraid. Cass is right: there are many needs the state simply cannot meet. The state certainly could not have consoled my scared and disoriented grandma. But without her Social Security and Medicare, my mother probably couldn’t have consoled her much, either. She would have been working to make sure her mother wasn’t relegated to the terrors of a bare bones nursing home full of total strangers. Thanks to the state, my grandmother had her daughter at her side to sing along with hymns she never forgot.

Where’s the “atomism”? Where’s the dispensability of the family? Who in this debate believes that individuals are self-sufficient monads? Nobody. The entire thing is about the essential dependence of children and the scope of our collective responsibility to them. The role the state played in enabling my mother to care for her mother is basically the role that conservatives like Romney propose that the state play with respect to children. No one denies that parents bear primary responsibility for their children. No one is suggesting that the state is a viable alternative to mothers and father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.

Moreover, everyone involved in this discussion agrees that child allowances help children. Cass is proposing one himself. But, again, if he thinks that child allowances help children generally, then he ought to think that they help children whose parents don’t work. His critics are asking, “Why deny to a subset of very poor children the same help you are willing to offer much more privileged children?” On its face, this seems perverse and cruel.

Cass whines and stomps around in a giant huff about what he sees as the unfairness of this perception. He seems to think that the existence of his own proposal, which would offer most children substantially more support than they currently receive, ought to render him immune from the perception of callousness. He’s somehow oblivious to the fact that his critics universally see him as proposing something awful because his own plan completely buys into the idea that direct cash assistance helps children. If direct government transfers of cash help kids so much, then why withhold cash transfers from kids who really need them? Cass never gets around to answering this question in a clear way. I can’t find it in his column and I can’t find it in his huffy rejoinder.

In the 90s, Cass’s thinking was highly prevalent among Democratic elites as well as Republican ones, resulting in the awful “welfare reform” bill signed by Clinton. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and the ARP represents a decisive break from this misguided thinking.

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