A Distinctly American Family Policy


Published on November 11, 2021

Public Discourse

A funny thing happens when your hometown gets a Major League Soccer team. People start injecting Britishisms like “pitch,” “keeper,” and “nil-nil” into conversations, rather than sticking with “field,” “goalie,” and “zero-zero.” At games, they start holding up scarves and elaborate banners like they’ve seen in La Liga, the Bundesliga, and Serie A.

Traditions, of course, can’t be constructed ex nihilo, so these enthusiasms tend to come across as artificial affectations. The scarf tradition, for example, arose organically in the early 1900s, with English “football” fans wanting to display their allegiance while keeping warm on a cool night in Liverpool or Manchester. Bringing a scarf to a climate-controlled stadium on a summer’s evening in Atlanta is, in the patois of the Internet, live-action role playing.

It sometimes feels like something similar is happening in discussions of family policy. In recent decades, talking about “family policy” would mark you as an inhabitant of the Left, eager to adopt cradle-to-grave welfare state programs like those of the Swedes or the Danes. Contemporary members of Team Scandinavia might be writers like Maxine EichnerMatt Bruenig, or Katha Pollitt. More recently, some conservative intellectuals have sought to bring ideas from the banks of the Danube back stateside. Typified, of course, by the writings of Gladden Pappin or Sohrab Ahmari, they argue for “Hungary-style family policy,” often in the form of generous tax incentives for families and fertility.

Each side offers fair critiques of the U.S. economic model. As Eichner explores in her recent book The Free Market Family, America’s laissez-faire tendency has too often left families to fend for themselves against the excesses of a neoliberal economy. The Scandinavian mold is entirely liberal through and through, using a cradle-to-grave welfare state to liberate us from our unchosen obligations. By contrast, the Hungarian model is proudly post-liberal, seeking to reshape culture with the power of the law as teacher.

But borrowing a family policy prescription from Helsinki or Budapest is bound to disappoint. For better or for worse, our country’s narratives around work and independence, our racial and ethnic heterogeneity, our folk libertarianism, and the degree to which our prior policy choices constrain future action (what political scientists might call path dependence) all mean any approach to supporting families through stronger policy action needs to reflect to our Americanness. These polices must be seen as expanding choice, not constraining it; working with our national character, not trying to reshape it, all while understanding family as the essential institution in society, one that stakes an unavoidable claim on our public resources.

An authentically American approach to supporting families would recognize the vibrancy of a market economy and the importance of the dignity of work, while recognizing that family life, and its supportive web of social institutions, should rightly operate outside the logic of the marketplace. It would embrace the necessity of being extra-liberal, strengthening voluntary associations, religious institutions, and, most importantly, families as social and economic actors in their own right.

That requires a durable understanding of what families are, and what they are for. They cannot be viewed as institutions of convenience or mere sentimental attachment, rather than institutions with their own sphere of responsibilities. They cannot be seen as immune from broader economic trends, or placated with clichés about family values while communities are hollowed out. They also cannot be treated be mere instruments, for social engineering of the progressive or reactionary variety. An authentically American family policy would respect parents’ choices, and seek to expand the options available to them, while helping avoid being undermined by the coercive power of the state or the vagaries of the market.

The Scandinavian Model

The European models on offer provide inadequate responses within the American context.

At its core, the Scandinavian model of family policy suffers from an inadequate anthropology. The progressive vision for family policy tends to be heavy on the policy, light on the family. After all, despite decades of social science demonstrating that parents and families really do matter for child well-being, the Left’s view of family is one that celebrates non-discrimination as the highest good. A family is whatever you want it to be—two consenting adults, three consenting adults, a “multi-species family” of two consenting adults and a pet, and so on. And if “family” is simply a collection of individuals who happen to share a roof or a bed, then there’s no reason why the state should act to buttress it.

In this telling, the state’s role is to smooth the transfer all sorts of responsibilities to “professionally licensed care providers,” so that parents can get back to their job, or career, or passions, or whatever they were doing before family life got in the way. Indeed, for some of the louder voices on the Left, crowding out the responsibilities of parents to their children (and children to their parents) is a feature, not a bug. It’s increasingly trendy to attack the family as a bastion of the patriarchy, or white supremacy, or oppressive heteronormativity, and to celebrate its demise.

This framework helps explain the Biden Administration’s proposed Build Back Better agenda. They propose a suite of benefits (which, as of this writing, are still being negotiated as part of the trillion-dollar-plus reconciliation package) that would pour federal money into child-care subsidies, universal pre-kindergarten, paid leave, funding for elder care, and an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit, without any coherent argument as to how or why these pieces all fit together.

This sampler platter of policy proposals exemplifies the Left’s tendency to task the state with the roles traditionally understood as crucial to family life: provider, caretaker, and educator. An inadvertently revealing glimpse into this framework came from former Virginia governor Terry McAullife, who now-famously said the quiet part out loud during a debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (Virginia parents, apparently, disagreed.)

If the progressive Left wants to outsource everything to the state, however, the laissez-faire tendency on the Right has been to focus on getting government out of the way, to the exclusion of recognizing the other forces that can harm family life. Yes, we need to protect families from the harms of excessive government action, when it infringes on religious freedom, crowds out civil society, or burdens them with excessive economic regulations or taxes. But there are harms from government inaction as well.

Understanding families as the core unit of society means recognizing that they are subject to the same economic and social trends that impact any of our institutions. Decisions about marriage and fertility are not solely driven by economic self-interest, but they are not immune to economic forces either, particularly for those in the lower and working class. There are many factors behind our record-low birth and marriage rates. But part of the reason has to include trends that increase both the out-of-pocket and opportunity cost of having a child, by an economy that penalizes families who want to have one parent stay home, by labor practices such as just-in-time scheduling and a lack of time off that make it hard to build a stable environment for their children.

The Hungarian Model

This is what Team Hungary gets right. America needs a political movement that places parents first, that recognizes the emptiness of libertarian rhetoric and the totalizing tendency of progressive solutions. But the strong, normative vision of family life that may resonate in a relatively homogenous central European country is an uneasy match for the diversity of experiences and preference of U.S. families. Those who embrace universal child benefits in explicitly pro-natalist terms too often come across as patriotic actuaries tallying up America’s vitality through its fecundity. Would it be nice if child benefits or more social spending on families made it easier for more would-be parents to take the plunge? Sure. But evidence from other nations with more generous social support should suggest a cautious skepticism about any impact on a nation’s birth rate.

So a pro-family agenda should not be exclusively about pro-natalism. Broader pro-family policies may end up having an indirect effect on fertility, to be sure, baking an egalitarian commitment to prioritizing family life into our tax code and public policies. Rather than fostering a creeping cultural tendency to treat parenthood as simply a lifestyle choice equivalent to being a “dog mom,” reifying children as a public good, worthy of investment, may end up having a ripple effect on the culture. Still, even if the U.S. birth rate didn’t budge, as long as families found a society more accommodating of parenthood and young children, pro-family policy would still be a success.

Similarly, making family life easier does not mean trying to roll back the sexual revolution. The delineation between the public and the domestic sphere has never been as clear as the 1950s caricature tends to suggest. As demographer Steven Ruggles has pointed out, “The male breadwinner [household] represented a majority of marriages for just four decades” in American history: 1920 to 1960. Rising educational attainment and assortative mating means more and more couples are balancing dual careers and responsibilities at home, and too prescriptive a normative vision of family life risks being received as too stringent.

Certainly policymakers too frequently ignore the plurality of mothers who would love to spend more time at home with their children, especially in those precious early years. I admire the willingness of Arizona senate candidate Blake Masters, among others, to openly state a policy goal of making it easier for families to get by on a single income.

At the same time, some proponents of that idea sometimes confuse means for ends. Increasing wages and the labor share of income is a question of economic policy, including seeking appropriately tight labor markets; for one thing, paying sole breadwinners a higher wage will remain illegal without repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Conservative populists should adopt a working-class focus on boosting wages and expanding families’ ability to achieve the work-life balance they want without prescribing what that balance should look like, or upending our entire economic model to try to enact it.

We don’t need to denigrate markets to argue for limits on their logic, or to undermine capitalism in order to buttress family life. But we do need appropriate safeguards. Spending time with family or taking care of kids or grandparents are priceless but not economically “valuable.” Without counterbalancing intervention, letting the market do what markets do best—optimizing for efficiency, responding to incentives that can be measured, and sanding away non-monetizable goods—can undermine the family and its essential roles. So defending the family means defending a degree of “inefficacy,” even as elites lament the “untapped potential” of stay-at-home parents.

Picturing what a constrictive, conservative, distinctively American family policy agenda might look like doesn’t require a great leap of imagination. It just requires a series of conversations with a broad swath of working-class parents about the day-to-day struggles that keep them up at night, both economic and cultural. Bridging that disconnect was a big reason why the Institute for Family Studies, working with myself and three other think tanks, hosted a series of three focus groups: white parents in southwestern Ohio, black parents in the Atlanta area, and Hispanic parents around San Antonio.

These were parents working retail jobs as cable installers or clerical workers, not people gunning for a corner office suite. In large part, they didn’t care about building the wall or climate change. Instead, they worried about the cost of housing, the complexity of health care, how to balance work and caring for an aging parent. Importantly, these parents didn’t want, in Grover Norquist’s famous formulation, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. But they also don’t want one-size-fits-all programs designed by elites in DC.

On the whole, they said they wanted a government that works on their behalf to make life easier, not one that pushes a top-down vision of how they should be living their lives. They wanted to feel like they weren’t going to be penalized for doing things the right way, like when marriage penalties in the tax code subsidize cohabitation and make it more expensive for two low-income parents living together to tie the knot (something, I should note, the Biden Administration’s proposed plan will make even worse). They expressed a recognition of the dignity of work and a social contract based on having some skin in the game. They wanted a family policy, in other words, that was uniquely American.

The American Conversation

Most conversation around family policy this year has focused on questions of the expanded Child Tax Credit, which was extended to all families for the year in the Biden Administration’s coronavirus relief package, and was justified largely as an anti-child poverty measure. I am partial to Sen. Romney’s Family Security Act, which would introduce a monthly child benefit while reforming and rationalizing the tangle of tax code benefits for low- and middle-income families. But the no-strings-attached cash payments to parents has raised concerns among some centrists and conservatives that it would reduce work among low-income parents. And it’s not just think tank denizens who are skeptical; the expanded credit has been surprisingly unpopular.

To make headway, the case for child benefits needs to start from a framework that recognizes the centrality of work to the American psyche. This most often takes the form of work requirements, but could also stem from the recognition that those raising children are doing socially beneficial work that will never be fully compensated for in a market-based system. To put it in crude economic terms, prior to our modern entitlement system, children were an investment, a hedge against spending one’s final years in penury. Now, they are closer to a form of consumption, with parents putting in labor that benefits society and receiving far from the full value of their labor back. Socializing the costs of reproduction allows us to compensate parents for the fact that society financially benefits from the rearing of the next generation far more than the parents themselves do. This approach, rather than moral appeals to reducing child poverty or boosting birth rates, may prove a sounder argument for expanded child tax credits.

Still, even though child benefits get the headlines, family policy has to be about more than just tax credits. It needs to be an affirmative vision for how public policy choices make parents’ lives easier.

A perfect example of this is child care. The progressive vision of universal child care assumes every parent will want to be working full-time, without considering whether that’s best for every family or if some parents (like myself) prefer to spend time at home with their kids when they are young. At the same time, a strictly limited government approach to child care would ignore the market failures that are inherent to the industry. Parents rely on regulation, for example, to provide some peace of mind about the quality of care, since they by definition are unable to observe it for themselves. Prices are often opaque, and most families have a strong geographical preference for a location near home or work. Simply ignoring these constraints would turn a blind eye to needs of single parents, stay-at-home parents who need a couple mornings free a week, college-educated couples who live far from family, or other families who need better child care options.

A creative, constructive approach to child care would leverage public funds to enable religious and community groups to expand or offer child care services in a safe and caring environment. Instead of trying to expand the K–12 public school model down to infants, we should be providing resources that civil society can tap to give parents the options they want, in addition to supporting those parents who wish to stay home.

Besides, the traditional district school model isn’t looking so hot right now. One of the few silver linings from the past year-and-a-half has been the groundswell of opposition rising across the country, as more and more parents realize that public school administrators and teachers’ unions’ top priorities tend to be something other than the well-being of their kids. From masks and social distancing to critical race theory and gender ideology, parents are fed up with not having a voice in their children’s education, and they’re looking for better options.

For a long time, conservatives have talked about school choice as a life raft for poor kids trapped in failing public schools. It’s time to move beyond that, and embrace a vision of education that recognizes the many dimensions that go into educating the whole person. A pro-family education policy would move beyond charters and open enrollment and re-think what the government’s role should be in education. Instead of our current status quo of 90 percent of kids in public school, I propose we think of the state as the guarantor and funder of access to education without necessarily being the default provider of it, a system referred to as “educational pluralism.”

A pluralistic approach to education would grant funds to any number of diverse approaches to education, ensuring that Catholic schools, STEM academies, and schools with culturally specific curricula or a focus on the trades, all have access to the same resources and give parents as many options as possible. Instead of endless curriculum wars and being subjected to whatever trend in progressive orthodoxy school districts try to impose on any given day, a pluralistic system would leave room for different conceptions of the purposes of education.

Being pro-family should also push us to think about the economics of forming future families, and helping young men, especially, become the type of adults who are dependable providers. Breaking the hold of the higher-education-industrial-complex and investing in apprenticeships, community colleges, and technical certification programs will make it easier for those who are currently falling through the cracks of the college-for-all mindset to earn a living that’s enough to support a family.

Other topics worth taking seriously through a family-first lens include simplifying the administration of our jury-rigged health care system, improving the quality of life for parents by building more parks and public spaces (including spending on the police and personnel necessary to maintain them), loosening up zoning laws to allow for cheaper and more intergenerational housing, and advancing common-sense regulations on technology to make it easier for parents to keep their kids from stumbling across explicit content. All of these, even restricting kids’ access to pornography, could be political winners, perhaps even bipartisan ones.

Lastly, and most importantly, more support for parents will help moms on the margins facing a crisis pregnancy. A pro-family agenda will become essential for conservatives if, God willing, the Supreme Court allows a wider range of restrictions on abortion following the Dobbs case later this year. One of the most common reasons women choose abortion is due to economic concerns, and more robust social spending on children could help create a culture in which all children are treated as worthy of not just legal protection, but social support and encouragement.

Obviously, the best institutions to create that environment will remain groups like Birthright and other organizations already doing yeoman’s work to support moms in need. But a post-Dobbs environment will force conservatives to put their money where their mouth is. This may require revisiting some of the conventional wisdom that has resided on the Right around welfare policy since the 1980s and 1990s, and require funding programs like home visiting more often associated with the Left. But in order to make abortion not just illegal, but unthinkable, we will have to wrestle with what role public policy should play in strengthening families, and why those of us who are pro-life and see the family as the foundational unit of a healthy society think not just about law and social policy, but economic policy as well.

The point of public policy should be recognizing the family as the place where the next generation is literally born and bred, not treating the family as an interchangeable collection of autonomous individuals, nor mistakenly thinking that the family is immune to economic trends and forces, nor giving into the temptation to socially engineer it.

Throughout these discussions, we can always learn from abroad. Both Team Scandinavia and Team Hungary can provide a useful corrective, and a reminder that an economy that does not have families at its center will always run the risk of devaluing things that really matter.

But we cannot assume away the American culture, system, or people. Building a pro-family agenda in a culture that embodies a high degree of functional libertarianism will be hard work, and it will become impossible if it is seen as importing a replacement set of values from abroad. But we can begin to move toward a healthier economy and culture without waiting for a revolution from the Left or Right.

An agenda that supports pluralism rather than big government solutions, and celebrates the bonds of family and community life over careerism and unencumbered individualism, will recognize the irreplaceability of families as the cornerstone of a flourishing society. By orienting our policy framework toward broadening parents’ choices, we can make America a better place to raise a family, and provide meaningful encouragement to those doing the hard work of raising generations to come.

A version of these remarks was delivered at the Napa Institute’s 2021 Principled Entrepreneurship conference.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he writes on family policy. He is a former senior policy advisor to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, and lives in Columbia, S.C.


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