With a Biden administration and a Democrat–controlled Congress, conservatives will need to do plenty of yelling “stop!” in the coming months. The barrage of executive orders in President Biden’s first few weeks in office confirms that. However, economic support for families is one area where social conservatives can and should find common ground with Democrats.
GOP lawmakers have an important opportunity to help determine the contours of family policy in order to strengthen family bonds rather than undermine them. For decades, conservatives have argued that proposals like childcare subsidies and paid maternity leave would be a recipe for government encroachment on the family. They worry that giving too much welfare to jobless single mothers disincentivizes work and marriage. These are valid concerns, but they’re ultimately not persuasive arguments against pro-family public policy—they’re arguments against bad family policy. Conservatives should support good family policy: programs that support parents in ways that respect their capacity and authority to make the right decisions for their own families, rather than nudging them to cede that authority to federal bureaucracies in order to receive aid. Such programs should be structured so that they don’t penalize recipients for getting married or getting a job.
Democrats are increasingly putting their weight behind proposals such as universal daycare, which would require a vast new system of expensive and inefficient government bureaucracy. Such a program would also create powerful financial incentives pushing families toward the dual-income model and putting families who choose to have one parent stay home at a significant disadvantage. By proposing alternative pro-family policies, GOP lawmakers can rein in misguided Democratic proposals and make sure that our tax dollars actually go to help families, not to pay the salaries of yet more federal functionaries. Mitt Romney’s new plan for a monthly child allowance is a great example of a policy that would reduce red tape and put more money in the pockets of parents raising young kids.
This shouldn’t be a hard sell. For years now, socially conservative voters have demonstrated that they favor pro-family economic policies like these, even if they don’t strictly conform to the free market ideal. As a post-Trump conservative coalition struggles to define itself, social and religious conservatives should seize the opportunity to step up and play a leading role, making economic support for families a central tenet of the American right.
Finances, Faith, and Family Breakdown
If conservatives believe that strong families are essential to a healthy society, why haven’t they embraced pro-family public policy before now? In spite of recent shifts, many conservatives remain skeptical that programs like a child allowance or paid family leave will really strengthen the institution of marriage or encourage couples to have more children. Their reservations are not unfounded. In a thoughtful essay for Plough titled “The Case for One More Child,” Ross Douthat describes our culture’s loss of religion, familial breakdown, and plummeting birthrates as
a set of feedback loops: the rich society creates incentives to set aside faith’s admonitions, which orients its culture more toward immediate material pleasures, which makes its inhabitants less likely to have children, which weakens the communal transmission belt for religious traditions, which pushes the society further along the materialist-individualist path. . . . and at a certain point you end up, well, here, with unparalleled prosperity joined to seemingly irresistible demographic decline.
How can we escape this vicious cycle? Perhaps, writes Douthat, this would require “our society to become dramatically unlike itself, ordered to sacrifice rather than consumption, and to eternity rather than what remains of the American Dream. You would need not change on the margins, but transformation—probably religious transformation—at the heart.” This rings true. Merely materialistic explanations rarely provide full explanations for the emergence of cultural phenomena, and the problems plaguing American families are clearly deeper than mere money troubles. Our culture’s slide away from traditional norms of sexual morality, stable marriages, and booming birthrates does have more to do with the loss of meaningful religious faith and the rise of consumerism than it does with poverty or lack of access to quality childcare.
Still, as Douthat also notes, “the more you deliberately organize institutions around supporting families, the more children would seem like a complement to education and opportunity rather than a threat.” From an empirical standpoint, the data we have do indicate that stress and conflict surrounding financial instability can lead couples to divorce, that financial concerns are a primary reason why Americans are having fewer children, and that a majority of women seeking an abortion say that they are doing so because they “can’t afford a baby now.” Research analyzing the effects of (very expensive) pro-natalist policies in countries like Poland indicate that such programs do in fact raise birth rates. When it comes to family breakdown, financial woes are not the whole picture, but they are certainly part of it.
A Conservative Blind Spot
This is a claim that conservatives too often resist. Consider the results of the annual American Family Study. Among other questions, it asks respondents to name the biggest problems facing American families today. Their answers follow a clear pattern. According to the study’s co-author, Jeremy C. Pope, “Liberals discount structural aspects of challenges like family breakdown and single parenthood. Conservatives do exactly the reverse. . . . They’re a little blind to aspects of economics that may affect families.”
Left-leaning scholars, politicians, and cultural commentators repeatedly emphasize that the financial and emotional difficulties faced by American working parents are not their fault. The problems, they argue, are systemic. Such arguments are often rooted in feminist sociology, intersectionality, or other frameworks with roots in Marxist and materialist philosophical systems. Too often, they overemphasize the importance of systemic problems and underemphasize the capacity of individual choices to reshape both the lives of particular families and the contours of the larger cultural institutions that surround us.
Conservatives are right to refuse to reduce every social phenomenon to dynamics of power and oppression. However, emphasizing only the importance of personal responsibility, family values, and individuals’ moral decision-making ignores the reality that humans are social creatures, whose choices are influenced and constrained by external institutions.
An Institutional Strategy for Cultural Transformation
Traditional conservative understandings of society emphasize that the web of communities and institutions that surrounds us gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity. Judeo-Christian theology similarly emphasizes the inherent relationality of human beings: if we are made in the image and likeness of a triune God, loving relationships with others are at the core of what it means to be a person. The truth is, no one is totally autonomous. Whether we like it or not, we are all embedded within a larger ecosystem of relationships of mutual duty and dependence.
Thus, religious conservatives often emphasize the importance of the intact biological family and the institution of marriage. As Yuval Levin rightly argues, we need to focus on strengthening the institutions of our civil society and transforming our culture rather than scoring merely political victories. Such genuine cultural transformation must start with the rebuilding of the institutions—like families, churches, and schools—that not only connect us to others but also fundamentally shape who we are as persons.
The institutions of civil society do not exist in a vacuum. Conservatives know this; that’s why we fight so hard for religious liberty. Bad government policy can prevent religious organizations from providing essential charitable services—such as placing children in loving adoptive homes with both a mother and a father or caring for the elderly and impoverished—if those organizations dare to dissent from secular orthodoxy on matters like same-sex marriage or contraception. Clearly, it’s essential to fight the encroachment of the administrative state upon the workings of civil society.
As Pope John Paul II pointed out in the encyclical Centissimus Annus, there are “necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them.” On the other hand, “the State has the duty of watching over the common good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector.” Well-crafted pro-family policy can do just that.
A Way Forward
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dangers of a social model in which atomized individuals—or isolated and rootless nuclear families—depend on a mix of large government programs and paid childcare providers to provide the support that they need to survive. Some progressives have responded to the plight of working parents with calls for a nationwide system of childcare centers. Such a system would give the financial edge to families with both parents working full-time, fueling bidding wars for real estate in good school districts and making it more and more difficult for families in which one parent wants to stay home with their children.
Thankfully, the Biden administration seems to be open to a different approach. Nestled within President Biden’s staggeringly large $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal is an important section that would reform and expand the Child Tax Credit. As Republicans push to trim down the total price tag, this is one section they shouldn’t excise. The proposal is basically a one-year version of the American Family Act (AFA). By reforming the current Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable, this proposal would effectively establish a monthly child allowance of $300 per month for children five and under and $250 per month for children six and up. This could have a big impact: researchers at Columbia University have predicted that the AFA would lift four million American children out of poverty. It would do this by simply giving parents the financial resources they need to care for their families, while respecting their authority to do so as they see fit.
Government funding for childcare is often touted as a way to help single parents and those living in poverty. But, as demographer Lyman Stone argues, “The families with the greatest financial needs often face numerous difficulties, not just one big cost,” and they’re better served by cash than subsidized childcare. As family policy analyst Patrick Brown writes at The Institute of Family Studies, this proposal from the Biden administration gives the GOP the chance “to make good on its newfound self-conception as a multi-ethnic, working-class party, one whose economic and political interests would be ill-suited by objecting to putting more money in the pockets of working-class parents.”
Senator Mitt Romney has risen to that challenge by proposing a plan that is even simpler and more effective than the Biden proposal. His plan would replace complex tax incentives with a simple child allowance of $350 per month for children under five and $250 for older children. If our aim is to support families, Romney’s plan is an excellent solution. This proposal would give financial support to families without creating huge new bureaucracies or making it more difficult for families to opt out of the dual-career model.
COVID has made it clearer than ever that parents are the only ones with the knowledge to make the best decisions for their children and for their families, whether that means moving closer to grandparents who can help out, paying for daycare, hiring a babysitter, or having one parent stay at home. Government programs should aim at supporting parents while respecting their autonomy and prudential judgment, enabling them to choose the right arrangement for their family.
It’s time for the GOP to get serious about funding programs that accomplish those aims.