Published November 10, 2021
When Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer — nationally-renowned author, president of the Magis Center, and former president of Gonzaga University — asks you something, you do it.
I recently gave a talk in New York City, talking about my experience as a senior policy staffer on Capitol Hill and why our politics too often fail to listen to middle-class parents. In it, I walked through some of the challenges facing families and offered a vision for public policy that puts supporting families first.
At the end of the half-hour, Father Spitzer threw down the gauntlet — “Lots of people want their elected officials to support families, but they don’t know where to start. Could you summarize everything you just said into five bullet points people could focus on?”
Well, Father Spitzer, challenge accepted. It is indisputable that families today face an array of cultural and economic challenges. Certainly not everyone has the time to lobby Congress on the complete set of problems facing families, but there are a couple of key areas Catholics can be thinking about in turning our politics in a more authentically pro-family direction.
Of course, there are times when the best thing government can do to help families is to get out of the way — not layering on oppressive taxes and regulations, keeping away from fueling inflation, avoiding infringements on religious liberty.
But there are times when government can — and must — take direct action to help families as well. The Church understands the family is the fundamental unit of society, and has a claim on our resources.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus, “It is urgent therefore to promote … social policies which have the family as their principal object, policies which assist the family by providing adequate resources and efficient means of support.”
An approach to public policy that recognizes this would place families first. And these are five of the most important steps policymakers could take to put that philosophy into practice:
First, support families through the tax code. Ever since the mid-1990s, many families have been able to reduce their taxes via the Child Tax Credit. Continuing to expand the CTC’s generosity, including potentially covering unborn children in their final trimester, can ease the financial burden on parents. Six states already offer their own child tax credit on top of the federal credit, which is a tangible way of recognizing the added financial burdens that parents must bear. And providing direct aid to parents gives them the freedom to spend on the items that will be most beneficial to their families — like diapers, school clothes or food — rather than tying it to a specific expense like childcare, which not every family needs or wants. And, God willing, if the Supreme Court rules that states are allowed to enact more restrictions on abortion, many moms with crisis pregnancies will be needing material support from the government as well as the heroic charities like Birthright that already do so much.
Second, eradicate marriage penalties. We know the best place for a child to be raised is by an intact family. But the tax code implicitly subsidizes cohabitation over marriage, making it more likely that children will be raised in broken homes. Two low-income or working-class individuals who choose not to marry will face lower tax rates, and often more generous social safety-net benefits, than a similar couple who elects to tie the knot. These penalties are often created inadvertently, but must be fixed by intentional effort and investment of public resources.
Third, expand educational options. As the last year has vividly shown, the current K-12 educational system too often does a poor job in reflecting parents’ wishes and allowing families to find the environment that is best for their children. School choice can no longer be about just giving more options to children trapped in failing schools; it needs to be about broadening the array of choices for all parents. In many states, that will take the form of expanding access to vouchers or education savings accounts. It could also mean permitting parents to use tax-advantaged dollars on expenses associated with homeschooling or so-called “microschooling,” encouraging all parents to find the educational environment that’s best for their whole child — mind, body and soul.
Fourth, address the cost of living. Two of the biggest expenses weighing on families are housing and health care. These two, massive sectors of our economy are difficult to tackle, but prices will continue to rise if we don’t make it easier for supply to meet demand. In housing, that means making it easier to build new housing, by eliminating onerous environmental review regulations and streamlining zoning permits. Economic studies show that rising house prices have an effect on fertility — homeowners are more likely to have children when home values go up, while those renting are less likely to have a baby. Cheaper and more abundant housing will make it easier for those just starting a family. In health care as well, expanding the array of services that can be provided by nurses, increasing the number of medical residencies, and encouraging innovative health care models can help families’ bottom lines over the long run.
Fifth, support families against external threats. Some of the gravest threats our families face are cultural in nature, but that doesn’t mean public policy has no role to play in combating them. Instead of allowing school officials to work behind the backs of parents of children who express “gender confusion,” lawmakers could require parental notification in such cases. States could affirm that parents have the right to object to sexually explicit material in K-12 classrooms. And lawmakers could take meaningful steps to make it more difficult for youth to access pornography online, such as requiring a credit card or photo ID to access a website with explicit material.
We could always imagine bigger and bolder attempts to make America more family-friendly. But — just as Father Spitzer asked — these are five politically-achievable goals to focus on, to clip out and put on the fridge for the next time someone asks what politics could really do to help parents. After all, raising the next generation is hard work, and they need all the help they can get.
Patrick Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a former congressional staffer. He is on Twitter at @PTBwrites.