A modest proposal to reduce abortions in America

Listen
 (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-169406657/stock-photo-adorable-little-african-american-baby-girl-looking-black-people.html'>Baby girl</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

(Baby girl image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

Before I get to where I’m going with this one, let me clarify something.

I’m not really either pro-choice or pro-life.

I’ve never shaken a sense that abortion is always a tragedy and sometimes a sin.

But I’m sure government has no business whatsoever dictating to women or couples what should be done about a pregnancy.

Our standard political rhetoric is pleased to call my position incoherent. I don’t agree. Some deeds which a broad group deems morally wrong still aren’t fit for government regulation.

Adultery, for example.

Hardly anyone argues that messing around on your spouse is a constitutional right, but hardly anyone wants to send the state police charging into no-tell motels with handcuffs. Despite Facebook’s and the Patriot Act’s best efforts, most people still believe in a sacred zone of privacy.

Looking at the abortion debate, I see others whose positions strike me as more confused than my own. That would include politicians or advocates who carry on about the rights of the unborn, then seem to lose interest in the welfare of children after they are actually born.

Here’s an axiom of sound legislating: Sometimes the best way to achieve your goal is not to ban a behavior you dislike, but to encourage the behavior you favor. Carrots, not sticks.

When handing out tax breaks and cheap loans to corporations to induce them to build, say, an auto plant in their states, elected officials don’t check to see if those outfits are morally pure or even if they really need the money. The company’s worthiness, or lack of it, is not the point.

The crux is that the incentives are seen as the only way to get for-profit entities to behave how you want them to behave i.e. to build here, instead of anywhere else. (Not saying those sweetheart deals always prove worth it, just underlining what the thinking is.)

In the case of pregnancies, the behaviors being sought are carrying pregnancies to term, then cherishing and nurturing the children thus born.

Here’s the deal:

In that spirit, allow me to lay out my modest proposal to reduce abortions in America (the rate is about 2 million a year) while helping children grow into healthy, productive citizens.

I realize aspects of this proposal are impractical, while others might offend some. But consider this a thought exercise.

When a woman seeks an abortion, instead of mandating they be told medical lies, lay out this alternative:

If you agree to have the child, you will get a $100,000 payment from a grateful nation.
 Whether you keep the child, or give it up for adoption, for the first four years of the child’s life, the child’s caretakers will receive an annual payment equal to the average household income in their home state.
 The child will be guaranteed a slot in a high-quality pre-K program. And the child will be awarded a K-through-12 voucher equal to the average per pupil spending in the home state’s public schools.
 Finally, upon graduating from high school, the child would be eligible for free tuition at a home state public university.

Sound expensive? Maybe, but every unborn life is infinitely precious, right? No price should be too high to uphold a bright line moral value, correct?

Estimating this program’s 10-year cost in a back-of-the-napkin way (see details below), I came up with $226 billion a year over the first 10 years. The cost would grow over time, as more kids entered the pool. For context, the annual defense budget is just shy of $500 billion a year. National spending on prisons is about $90 billion a year.

I think my program will yield far higher economic, societal and tax dividends than those two. I’m ready to pay my share of higher taxes to make it happen.  What do you think?

Now, to the back of the napkin

As noted, abortions are estimated to number a little over 2 million a year.

For the purposes of this calculation, I assumed that the program would eliminate half of those terminations. An arbitrary guess, but it acknowledges that money and career issues are not the only reasons why women make this choice.

(By the way, I proceed through this thought exercise with keen awareness that I will never experience the rigors of carrying a child to term, nor the agonies of childbirth. But I have witnessed those up close with my wife and children, so I’m not utterly clueless as to what is being asked of a woman when she’s urged to give birth.)

To tote up the per-child costs of this proposal in a rough way:

The $100,000 “mom bonus” is the only easily fixed cost.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, average household income in 2014 was $51,939. Call it $52,000, and say four years of that, with inflation, equals $215,000.

According to the National institute for Early Education Research, a high-quality pre-K costs a little bit more than $9,000 per child, on a national average.

So three years of that for this child is $27,000.

Now, that K-12 “no-strings” voucher. By this, I don’t mean the kids would need to attend religious or private schools to access it. It could be used that way, or parents of modest means with access to good public schools could use the money as well-off parents do, to bolster their child’s education through summer camps, trips, arts and sports activities etc, as well as saving for college.

For kids of well-off families, yes, this would be gilding the lily, but the kids who would need the help far outnumber those who would not. Avoiding means test are a time-honored, albeit expensive, way to gain the support of most active and well-off voters for a useful social program.

Per-pupil spending K through 12 varies widely from state to state, but a national average in 2013 was roughly $10,700, according to the Census. Rolling that up across 13 school years, and allowing for some year-over-year increases, I estimated the per-student lifetime cost of the vouchers at $150,000.

Finally, the tuition help. State university tuition varies widely as well, and these costs — hitting the furthest into the future — were the hardest to estimate. I somewhat arbitrarily settled on $20,000 a year, for tuition, fees and some help with room and board. That wouldn’t do it for you at Penn State or Temple even now, but a lot of states support higher education more generously than Pennsylvania does. (And yes, I know, those two are “state-related,” not pure state universities, but they play the role that state research universities play elsewhere.)

So $80,000 for four years. (God knows if any college kids will be graduating in four years by the time this benefit hits, but I’m rocking it old school with this one.)

Roll it all up, and it comes to $572,000in incentives (or, as I’d prefer to call them, investments) over 21 years, or $27,238 a year.

Now, I’m not an actuary nor do I have training in the Congressional Budget Office. In trying to estimate the global cost of this idea, I indulged in a lot of assumptions and quick-and-dirty shortcuts. There’s almost certainly a better way to tote this up than I used.

But using this per-year, per-child estimate of costs, and trying to figure out how expenditures would fluctuate as each year’s cohort of bouncing baby boys and girls entered, I came up with a yearly cost of $277 billion over the first 10 years, with an expectation that the program, if continued, would (as entitlements tend to do) grow more expensive over time.

But what I didn’t do at all is try to estimate offsetting factors that a CBO or economist’s analysis would, such as the demand-side economic boost that putting this money into parental pockets would spur, with attendant tax revenues.

Nor did I — and this is the most significant omission — attempt to calculate the longitudinal benefits in terms of reduced crime, reduced prison costs and increased worker productivity that would result from this kind of investment in the nation’s children. Plenty of studies of quality pre-K have demonstrated such lasting impacts from the much smaller investments made to date in that kind of program.

The elephant in the room

… Or at least one of them:

I know this proposal — and remember it’s just a thought exercise and, frankly, a gauntlet thrown down before hypocrites — has one glaring practical flaw:

It’s predicated on giving the benefits only to children of women considering an abortion. In other words, it’s a huge inducement to expectant moms to pretend to be considering abortion.

If you were thinking that while you read the first 400 words of this essay, I’ll confess: You got me.

This idea most likely collapses from that flaw. I know that. If we were going to do this, we would have to — we should — do it for all children – but probably at lower, more sustainable levels.

I’m all for that.

But here’s why I structured the proposal this way:

What I want is to hear an answer from all the people who combine pro-life rhetoric with anti-government taxophobia: Which one of those stances really means more to them?

Because you know what I’m proposing would cut significantly into abortions, but it would also require an end to much corporate welfare and some kind of tax surcharge for the upper 10 percent of taxpayers.

If that’s the deal, I’m in. But would congressional pro-lifers be?

And, yes, in all fairness, I know many sincere pro-life advocates do run programs to support mothers and babies. But as with most faith-based efforts to respond to societal problems, the scale of those efforts falls woefully short of the mammoth need.

So, to conclude, I ask again: Who’s willing to put their wallet where their rhetoric has been?

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.