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Are Some Children Worth More Than Others? : Policy: Giving tax breaks to middle-class families while cutting off those on welfare is a moral contradiction.

<i> Roberta Ikemi is a staff attorney at the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles</i>

It is no surprise that those who are clamoring for middle-class tax cuts in one breath and wailing for welfare reform in the next have managed to create chaotic contradictions. This is a debate in which it is perfectly acceptable to assert that having children should be rewarded and that having children should be punished.

The clash of concepts arises from competing proposals to cut taxes on one hand and “change welfare as we know it” on the other. President Clinton, echoing virtually everyone else in Washington, proposes a $500 tax credit for each child under 13 and a deduction of up to $10,000 per family per year for higher education. Others offer similar programs.

There can be no doubt about the result of these proposals: They reward families earning specified amounts of money for each and every child they have. Under the Clinton proposal, a three-child family earns $1,500 in tax credits, a four-child family $2,000. Families without children get no similar benefit.

At the same time, political leaders are offering as a primary component of welfare reform “child exclusion.” Under this scheme, those receiving care and support for their children through Aid to Families With Dependent Children would be punished if they have another child while on AFDC. Such a child would, by definition, be ineligible for the same assistance his or her siblings receive. Welfare reformers operate in ignorance on this subject, incidentally, for most assistance programs do not work on a per-child basis. AFDC virtually never rises at the rate critics imply, and there is no parallel to the tax-credit proposals in which two-child families get twice the benefit as one-child families.

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Thus we find one proposal saying “please, have more children” offered by the same folks who also say “please, have no more children.” There is but one real difference, and it is hardly honorable: Our leaders seek to celebrate and reward middle-class “families” as they seek to punish and further impoverish “welfare mothers.” But many of those receiving assistance are, in fact, “families” as defined by the Washington seers: mothers, fathers and children who need assistance because a primary wage-earner has been laid off or disabled. Many more are families in which the father has abandoned or at least ducked responsibility. Too eagerly, our leaders offer to punish mom and the kids when dad takes a hike.

There is another unpleasant inequity in these competing proposals. It is the unspoken but implied assertion that virtually all middle-income households have fine parents deserving of every incentive we can offer, while all lower-income families (especially those headed by women) are incapable of nurturing, loving and caring for any child and are worthy only of contempt. It follows, sadly, that by policy we assert that some children are better, or at least more equal, than others. We are about to give the parents of middle-class kids a sizable hunk of money that we will take from the children of poverty.

By the way, where are the noisy and often nettlesome champions of “the sanctity of every life” in this debate? When the debate centers on reproductive freedom, we keep hearing that every life is valuable. But we hear nothing from those same voices when the issue is caring and nurturing. If equality is the issue, why does it stop at the delivery-room door?

The message is as clear as it is ugly: We have a series of proposals that hold that children should be regarded as vital assets as long as they are born to “good” families, that taxpayers should be rewarded for having children as long as the taxpayers make enough money and that parents can care for their children as long as they live in the right neighborhoods.

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