If you're tempted to think of the late 1940s and 1950s as a Golden Age of family life, here are some statistics worth pondering: In 1948, as the baby boom was starting up, the tax exemption for one dependent amounted to 42 percent of the nation's per capita personal income. A family of four -- a father, mother and two children -- would have little or no tax liability.
By 1984, the exemption for one dependent was worth only 7.6 percent of the nation's per capita personal income. The situation was marginally better by 1990, when a major tax reform law and a significant increase in the personal exemption had increased the value of the dependent exemption to 11.1 percent. Translated into dollars, if the personal exemption had kept pace with its value in 1948, it would have been worth $7,781 in 1990, rather than $2,050. No wonder there are grounds for nostalgia.
Conservatives and liberals may disagree over many things, but it's hard to dispute the evidence that tax policies have been severely unkind to families with children. So it is good news that a national commission spanning the political spectrum has called for a major new commitment to the welfare of children. A key recommendation is a $1,000 tax credit for all children through age 18. That won't make up for all the lost ground. But it's a significant step, and one that will aid both rich and poor.
Headed by West Virginia's Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the commission has made other proposals as well, which altogether will carry a price tag of $52 billion to $56 billion a year. That sum is bound to cause unease in the White House. But dismissing the recommendations may be harder than the administration would like to admit. After all, taxpayers watched President Bush take a principled position that Saddam Hussein's aggression would not stand. They are watching still as the administration finds the money to bail out bankrupt S&L;'s. What kind of nation would scrape up the money to bail out swindlers, but turn its back on its children?