There are any number of ways individuals can come in contact with government, and very few of them are pleasant. Generally, when you have to deal with the government, it means something has gone terribly wrong. Either something in your life has gone off the rails and you seek out government help, or you’re accidentally wearing your friend’s pants with cocaine in the pockets, in which case the government seeks you out.

Despite my theory that the success of your life can be measured by the extent to which you can avoid dealing with the government, I recently had to venture into the world of government-regulated babysitting. And it wasn’t pretty.

After the birth of our children, my wife was itching to get back to work. In order to accommodate our new schedules, we decided to hire a UW-Madison student to babysit our kids for 10 hours a week. We paid well, although our costs escalated quickly when we had to buy her the riot gear necessary to deal with my children.

In high school, I babysat quite a bit – mainly to pay for my love of Air Jordan shoes. It was always strictly on a cash basis – I managed not to kill their kids, they handed me cash at the end of the night. As a kicker, they always had cinnamon pop tarts in the house for me to eat. Pretty straightforward.

Yet when it came time to hire our own babysitter, it quickly became evident there was more to it than just paying out of pocket. For tax purposes, my wife and I had to register and get both state and federal business identification numbers. Despite just being a married couple with someone watching their kids for 10 hours a week, we essentially had to become a corporation. But I was determined to do this legally (not Bernard Kerik-style), and paid dearly for it.

From there, we had to pay income taxes, social security taxes, and unemployment taxes on our babysitter (as well as some back taxes, as it took a few months to figure this all out). We had to register with the Department of Workforce development to set up quarterly unemployment insurance payments – despite the fact that if our babysitter were to quit working, she wouldn’t be collecting unemployment. We had to file all the W-2 and W-3 forms with federal and state government to report her income. If you decide to pay the babysitter’s portion of the income tax, naturally that gets taxed too, since it is considered income to the sitter. Despite my wife and I both having master’s degrees (although, admittedly, mine came with the purchase of my 20th case of Miller Lite), we had to hire a professional tax preparer to sort the whole mess out. And this was for someone watching our kids for 10 hours a week.

There have to be thousands of families that hire a babysitter so a spouse can go back to work. I would estimate that the number of parents that follow the law in Wisconsin is probably five percent. There’s just no way to figure out the morass of paperwork and red tape without professional help – and many families of modest means just don’t have the resources to do so.

Supporters of government programs often praise the ability of bureaucracies to get people back on their feet and into the workforce. Yet this is a situation where heavy-handed government regulation, if followed lawfully, actually inhibits the ability of women to return to their jobs following the birth of their children. Rather than enacting more government programs to get people into jobs, it may make more sense for government to get out of the way to allow families to hire child care without a mountain of red tape.

Our babysitter is gone now, graduating from college and receiving a purple heart for her bravery in being able to deal with my children. So any law change streamlining the in-home child care process won’t benefit me. It will, however, benefit those families looking for a second income that don’t want to be treated like they’re selling cuts of meat out the back of a truck.

-August 6, 2007