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WETZSTEIN: Making it pay to have children

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Families with high school students and college-age children may want to consider an idea from historian and author Allan Carlson about the high costs of college. Mr. Carlson suggests that the federal government establish a debt-forgiveness program for college-educated married couples who have a child.

If they have one child, the federal government forgives (or pays off) $5,000 of debt for each parent, up to $10,000. If they have a second child, the federal government does it again for total relief of $20,000. Repeat two more times, and the family of six is free of $40,000.

The rationale for this program -- estimated to cost $8 billion to $10 billion a year -- is to support college-educated parents who choose to have large families.

Such an exchange -- retiring college debt when a married couple has or adopts a child -- is a "responsible public service," in Mr. Carlson's view. After all, if the nation attends to the well-being of its families, they will create well-being in the nation.

The nation benefits financially from its children, Mr. Carlson pointed out in a recent speech at the Family Research Council (FRC). According to federal data for 2005, the average American is expected to generate $2.7 million in economic gain over the course of his or her existence, Mr. Carlson said. "For children of college graduates, that figure rises to $4.4 million."

Clearly, he said, a federal investment of $10,000 to $40,000 in parental debt relief at the start of a family's life would have a good return.

How heavy a burden is college debt? Well, a new report on 2008 student debt depicts it as a college graduate stepping off a cliff with a ball and chain on one of her feet.

When examined state by state, college graduates racked up, on average, between $13,000 to $30,000 in student loans, said the report from the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success. The District and Iowa were at the high end for debt, while Utah and Kentucky were at the low end.

When student debt was viewed on a college-to-college basis, student debt ranged from $5,000 to $106,000, the report said.

Mr. Carlson's concern is that debt of any heft will scare young adults away from marriage and childbearing, especially if they are still in their 20s.

In 1984, for instance, 66 percent of women aged 25 to 29 were married, as were 57 percent of men that age. But by 2003, these percentages dropped to 54 percent of women and 42 percent of men.

And it's not like 30 is a magic age, either: In 1984, 74 percent of women aged 30 to 34 were married, as were 70 percent of men. By 2003, the percentages fell to 68 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Often, if a young man or woman makes a full disclosure about their debt, there's "no second date," Mr. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, told the FRC event. Or, couples will decide to live together without marrying while they struggle to pay off student loans (and other debts such as credit cards or car loans).

Mr. Carlson says his debt-relief proposal is just one in "a whole catalog" of ideas about how to promote family formation among young Americans.

So far, no one seems to be doing much about this issue.

But I would repeat one figure -- that children of college-educated parents are worth $4.4 million to the nation's economy over the course of their lifetime. Children are not burdens; they are the strength and hope of a nation. And as I have heard from those who study demography, fertility delayed can turn into fertility denied.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.