Abortion is one of our nation’s saddest realities, so it is always welcome to see new proposals for how we can care for “the least of these” in our midst. However, Lenny Glynn’s recent proposal in First Things for a pro-natal compromise bill is misguided and would have unintended consequences that would further erode the foundations of the family. Glynn proposes a hypothetical “Women’s Right to Choose Act” that would “draw on policies suggested by both Democrats and Republicans, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent national child care proposal and the family and child tax credits advanced by Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio.” However, the problems of poverty, loneliness, and family breakdown will not be solved by larger public interventions, but rather by reducing the size of the federal government and allowing families to care for themselves.
Glynn rightly notes that financial factors play a major role in women’s decisions to have abortions. But, as we’ve learned from decades of misguided social programs, sometimes direct financial subsidies do not resolve underlying problems. In some cases, the actual consequences of a policy can be exactly the opposite of the authors’ intentions.
Over the past fifty years, family structures have gotten more dysfunctional, not less, even as social programs aimed at helping poor women and children have ballooned to massive proportions. Safety net programs now make up 9 percent of the federal budget; Medicaid, CHIP, and other health insurance subsidies push that total to over 20% of total federal spending. We’re already doing a great deal, institutionally, to try to help those who are in bad situations, and these financial transfers are certainly improving the economic plight of many. But what are the long-term consequences of government subsidies of particular economic and social arrangements?
And how will we pay for these programs? While we might think we can just raise taxes to pay for new social programs, that seems unlikely. The top 1 percent of earners already pays 39 percent of the total federal individual income tax. When blue states have tried to enact high taxes on high earners, those high earners have responded by taking their money elsewhere. High earners and large corporations don’t like to move, but they’re willing to do it when the price is right. It’s often not as easy as the “money or lives?” dichotomy that Glynn presents.
Rather than focusing on wealth transfers to the poor, we should seek to cultivate conditions that enable people to flourish through their own actions and relationships. The key question is whether the proposed policy would encourage or hinder healthy family formation and healthy child care. Does it give people an incentive to stay together, or does it subsidize their breaking apart? Does it encourage one particular kind of child care, or does it enable all mothers to better care for their children in the way that they choose? In this case, Glynn’s proposal would further undermine American family formation and sound child care policy.
Incentivizing Mothers to Work
Consider the key “left” policy element of Glynn’s left-right proposal: child-care subsidies, to the tune of $70 billion a year. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal would create “a network of child care facilities, subsidized and regulated by the government, for all children too young to attend school.” Like many proposals from Democratic legislators, this policy would give financial benefits to working moms, but none to stay-at-home moms. This incentivizes women to work, even if they would prefer to be full-time caregivers to their children, elderly relatives, and those who are sick. If a working mom is going to get a $2,000 yearly subsidy for childcare, for example, a stay-at-home mom should get that same $2,000 as a refundable tax credit. Other policies, such as federally subsidized paid family leave, would yield similar inequities. Instead of privileging one child care and working arrangement, government policies should remain neutral. Big corporations might want their female employees subsidized by the federal government, but that’s hardly a good reason to do it.
If anything, government should actively support arrangements that permit mothers to spend more time directly caring for their children. No government program or institutional setting can replace the care and provision of the natural family and the network of social relations it produces. Even the highest quality day care centers cannot give the same personal formation as mom or grandma and grandpa can. Children aren’t widgets that can be produced on a factory floor. There is no flowchart or routine that can take a newborn and turn him into a functioning adult. The task of raising the next generation is a task of personal formation that is best done with mom, dad, and extended family as the primary caregivers.
Despite decades of pressure, most mothers work either part-time or not at all, and more mothers would rather be a full-time homemaker than a full-time outside-the-family employee. This reflects the reality that human development is an intensive work, one that can’t be fully outsourced. Universal preschool has no academic benefits, and it has measurable behavioral costs. As Ryan Anderson argues in When Harry Became Sally, “The two-career family model rests on the belief that mothers and fathers and day-care workers are functionally interchangeable—that caring for babies and young children can be done just as well by any adult.” Most of us “vote with our jobs” in a way that suggests we don’t really believe that.
Seeking a Cure for Loneliness
Our failure to embrace this task of personal formation is surely part of the explanation of our loneliness. Arthur Brooks recently noted that we are terribly lonely, and that loneliness is “tearing America apart.” The cure for loneliness is not more money, more economic productivity, or more government programs. The cure for loneliness is personal relationships. As both Aristotle and the Bible tell us, man is a social animal. We come into the world in a family. It is there that we first learn to love and to be loved. It is there that we learn to find our place and see how we can contribute to a common social project of human flourishing. It is there that we first learn the meaning of unconditional love. Children today are over-programmed and under-formed. We should look for policy proposals that bring families back together, with both living arrangements and caretaking, not enable them to be further separated.
Compare Glynn’s proposal with another idea that seems pro-life on its surface but has long-term negative social consequences: the notion that if we distribute contraception widely and freely then we’ll reduce the number of abortions. On a narrow analysis, in some circumstances, that might be right. The number of US abortions is decreasing at least in part because of the ease of access to contraception. But what have been the other long-term effects of normalizing contraception? It has brought with it an increase in premarital sex, cohabitation, and children born out of wedlock. Thus, even as abortion rates have dropped, our social dysfunction has increased. More children live without their father than at any time in US history. Mental health problems and youth suicides are on the rise. On a wide range of factors, including overall fertility, the American family is suffering. It turns out that, regardless of the short-term benefits, a contraceptive mindset that severs sex from children ultimately undermines the relationships, attitudes, motives, and structures that are necessary for long-term families and fertility. We lowered the number of abortions, but we lowered the number of marriages and childbirths even more. Sometimes, helping hurts.
Instead of trying to split the difference between ideas from both Republicans and Democrats, Glynn would have been far better served to simply advocate Marco Rubio’s recently proposed plan. His proposal, the “New Parents Act,” would permit parents to withdraw some Social Security money after a child is born if they agree to delay their Social Security start date as seniors. Essentially, it lets them use some of their Social Security money up front, as parents, rather than waiting until they turn sixty-two or sixty-five. This policy does not discriminate based on marital or child care arrangements. Working moms, stay-at-home moms, single moms, and married moms would all be able to participate. No new program is created, no new bureaucracy is subsidized. No network of care facilities, overseen and regulated by the federal government, is brought into existence. Instead, each family would have a little more “social security” each time a new child is born. That’s something both left and right should be able to get behind.
Minimizing the Father’s Role
Still, we shouldn’t overlook the way that even these “neutral” arrangements have an aggregate effect of minimizing the importance of the father. The more financial and social support that the state directly provides for women and children, the more marginalized the father becomes in the family unit. And having a father in the home is still the number one way to help children stay out of poverty.
Women have a unique and irreplaceable role in the family; only they can carry and nurse a child. By contrast, fathers’ commitment to mom and baby comes voluntarily, and it involves support that is indirect: provision and protection. A minimal safety net can help women and children stay out of extreme poverty, but the goal should always be to create the unique male-female partnerships—marriages—that are the natural, divinely ordained, and most effective means of nurturing the next generation. We should be looking for policies that facilitate household formation, getting fathers into the lives of their children, rather than those that inhibit it, subsidizing fatherlessness. When the welfare state grows in size, it tells men: “you are expendable in your role as father.”
A minimal social safety net is here to stay, and conservatives are generally happy to make peace with it. But the future flourishing of the human race depends on the family. And the health of the family increasingly depends on our ability to force large bureaucracies to leave families alone, letting married partners live out their common life together and care for one another in humane and personal ways.
In the long term, if we are to flourish as a people, we need to become less isolated and more interrelated. We need to find not autonomy, but solidarity. And solidarity comes first through that original social institution: the family.