Fading family

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 30, 2005

By accident and design, modern governments act to subvert traditional family institutions. Much of what was once normal in our societies is punished by the tax system, if not outlawed altogether. Much of what undermines the organization of the traditional family, meanwhile, is now subsidized.

A century ago, a growing family would build an addition on its house, and a second addition when that proved necessary. Parents and grandparents often lived in the same household, or sometimes in an adjoining house. The living arrangements were sometimes idyllic, sometimes not, but for those who couldn’t afford servants the economics were undeniable. Granny could look after the children and otherwise help with chores when the parents both worked, which was common. When Granny was sick, the older children might tend her. Despite the difficulties, and often because of them, families became tight-knit.

Today, the ability to build an addition on a house is greatly restrained by municipal bylaws designed to discourage traditional uses of land, and as for a granny flat – well, in much of the country, forget it. In any case, why go out of your way to put up with an ageing parent when you can institutionalize her in a nursing home, and your children in a day care, all at state expense?

At one time, family unification went without saying; to bring over a relative from abroad was seen as an unqualified virtue. Today, immigration authorities – not family members – decide whether families belong together or apart and their criteria have nothing to do with what is in the interest of the family and everything to do with what is in the interest of government-administered social programs. The rich and the young – those expected to provide the government with the financing it needs – are generally welcome. The rest are generally not.

At one time, household economics encouraged procreation. Children might help in the family business when they were young, and could be counted on to support their parents when they became adults. Today, children are an expense, not an investment, and parents weigh how many they can afford. In any case, with state pension and health plans to help sustain you in your old age, why err on the side of having a larger, rather than a smaller, family?

Social conservatives are often criticized for trying to manipulate the tax system to encourage more children. To the dismay of socialists and free-market libertarians alike, organizations such as Real Women support Quebec-style baby bonuses, which boosted Quebec’s birth rate and demonstrated that families do indeed procreate more when the economics become fecund. Social conservatives also favour benefits for stay-at-home moms and chaff at the “marriage penalty” in Canada, which tends to tax a family with two equal-earner spouses much less than a single-earner family with the same overall income.

Socialists and libertarians often argue that taxation should be based on the individual rather than the family unit, and in this they have a point: Government should not be biased in favour of marriage or childbirth. But if the rights of the individual are paramount, why stop individuals from “income splitting,” a tax-avoidance technique that would negate the marriage penalty.

Tax authorities frown on income splitting – the transference of income from a taxpayer in a high tax bracket to a spouse or a child in a lower one, to lower the overall tax rate that the family members must pay. A high-income spouse can’t easily hire a low-income spouse, or a child, to reduce his taxable income without attracting scrutiny. Parents can’t even provide their children with gifts of cash and have the interest income from that cash be subsequently taxable in their children’s hands.

In a free society, why shouldn’t such income splitting occur? Without the artifice of income-splitting rules, for example, every new child would represent a natural-born tax break, a greater middle-class benefit than any government baby bonus or maternity benefit. Even better, those with the most income to split – the well educated, the healthy – would have the greatest incentive to reproduce, countering a long-held criticism of pro-natal government policies: that they tend to attract welfare moms.

The government bias against the traditional family has grown in recent decades, partly because fear of population explosions has led government to a small-family ethic, partly because gays and other historically disenfranchised groups want in, partly because many associate the traditional family with church teachings that they reject. But to a large extent, the government bias comes not of explicit policies designed to undermine the family but from the growth of government itself. The more we rely on government to look after us, rather than our family and its intimate relationships within our communities, the more the family will shrink in relevance.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute; www.urban.probeinternational.org.

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