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Jay Evensen: Large families are not a burden on Utah taxpayers

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Going after large families is neither creative nor fair, and divisive rhetoric won’t get the state any closer to solutions.

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If you live in Utah and have several children, do you get an education “entitlement” from the government because each child is a tax deduction?

Or, put a different way, are you burdening the rest of society?

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, these notions seem to show up every year during the annual Utah legislative session. It’s time to debunk them.

This year, Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Patrice M. Arent, D-Millcreek, are sponsoring legislation that would limit the personal exemptions Utahns may claim on their state income tax returns. In other words, they would have large families pay more for education. To their credit, their plan also includes good ideas about how to equalize education spending in the state so that small, rural and low-income schools get more money. In this case, they would set up local school councils to distribute the money their bill would generate on a per-school and per-student basis.

But the idea of limiting tax deductions has set off predictable comments about fairness, entitlement and responsibility. The Deseret News quoted a State School Board member saying, “It’s been an entitlement for people to have tax breaks and not pay for their children’s education.”

And that’s a good way to throw serious debate about school funding into the trashcan.

The “e” word is a hot button in conservative Utah. It evokes stereotypical images of welfare moms or people who somehow feel entitled to benefit from the hard work of others. In this case it seems directed at the other end of the scale — large families of means who live in mansions, the stereotypical 1 percent who ought not burden the rest of us.

Well … that’s one side of the story.

First, let’s concede that Utah’s large student population presents a funding challenge. It’s not a new one — letters to the editor 100 years ago complained about school funding and low teacher salaries — but it does present the need for some creative thinking.

But going after large families is neither creative nor fair, and divisive rhetoric won’t get the state any closer to solutions.

Here’s the other side of the story: Parents bear the full burden of raising and providing for the next generation of adults, and that investment pays enormous dividends to all members of society, far greater than the amount of a tax deduction today.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report last year that estimated the current cost of raising a child to age 18 at $241,080. But, as Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, said in a speech to the World Conference on Families in 2007, “The family’s loss is society’s gain, for these same children constitute the human capital that the larger society draws upon for its very life.”

Every part of the future economy depends on these children. Mosher asks, “How much human capital do parents create when they conceive, bear, and raise a child? What is the economic value of a baby at conception?” He answers that the future lifetime earnings of a child will probably be in the neighborhood of $4 million to $5 million.

And what, conversely, would be the cost to society if the birthrate were to fall to levels consistently below the replacement rate? As I reported last year, author Jonathan Last has effectively used data to argue that population growth leads to innovation, invention and conservation. Over the last century alone, commodity prices have come down, diseases have been cured, and water and air have become cleaner. Without an expanding population, the next century won’t see such gains, and things likely will get worse.

None of these arguments, of course, gets us any closer to creating a world-class education system in Utah. That will require innovative thinking and some radical solutions. It may require a complete reorganization of the current system.

Nor do they answer the serious question of how much families ought to pay in direct education costs.

We can’t get to these solutions until we first end the divisive language that seeks to shame Utah’s large families without recognizing all they provide.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, jayevensen.com.

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