Assembling the Mosaic of American Family Life

Published June 22, 2022


America is starting to take family policy seriously. Record‐low birth rates, increasingly delayed or deferred weddings, and the rising cost of raising a child are leading policymakers and pundits to suggest new approaches to supporting family life in law—through the tax code and welfare programs—and across society.

And with the Supreme Court looking to turn the page on Roe v. Wade, there will doubtless be renewed talk about fertility and family life, and what sort of responsibility policymakers have to support pregnant women and parents.

In these debates, it will be essential to have an accurate picture of the threats facing the American family. The conventional approach of both the neoliberal Left and the laissez-faire Right has certainly threatened families’ economic stability—but those threats can, at times, be overstated. At the same time, discussions of family policy need to center around the institution of the family itself, and acknowledge that we can’t be indifferent to family structure or the roles that marriage, work, and education play in forming stable environments for children.

These are the two biggest themes that emerge from a new resource, released yesterday, that I compiled for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The 2022 Family Almanac is a compendium of 83 charts, graphs, and figures, designed to be a one‐stop shop for reliable information on topics ranging from marriage and fertility to household economics and child well‐being.

This collection of granular details form a mosaic-like picture of what family life in America looks like, and it doesn’t always fit popular narratives. It is worth stressing, despite doomsaying from the populist Right and the progressive Left, that many families are doing just fine in America. More than one-third of American families with kids are made up of married couples earning six figures or more. Single motherhood, a bane of conservatives for decades, has been on the decline since the late 1990s. Leftists who think couples are too terrified by climate change to even consider having a child might be surprised to learn that marital childbearing has generally remained steady, dipping only a little in recent years.

Keeping this picture in mind allows us to be clear-eyed about the extent to which economic policies—such as child benefits—can change fertility rates. Research from economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine suggests the biggest driver of lower rates of childbearing is not economic factors, but cultural scripts about education and work.

Yet as the data I collected show, families do bear a financial cost to raise kids, and that cost is higher now than it was decades ago. In economic terms, parents pay the cost of raising a child, while society reaps the benefits in the form of future workers. Compensating parents for that positive social externality is an appropriate role for public policy. Such assistance must be prudent, especially in an era of high inflation, but we don’t need to break the bank to get more dollars to parents. That’s one reason I love the new plan introduced by Sens. Mitt Romney, Richard Burr, and Steve Daines, which would provide a benefit to nearly all American families in a fiscally sustainable way.

There are also areas in which an agenda focused on families’ cost of living would be especially beneficial to parents. One is the cost of housing, which takes up a bigger chunk of families’ budget today than it did in decades prior. Home ownership rates for adults under 45—the prime age for family formation—nosedived during the Great Recession and have not yet fully recovered.

And there are certainly some warning signs that should not be ignored. As Elon Musk could tell you, fertility rates have bottomed out. Depression among children continues to climb, and the out-of-pocket cost of having a child rose by half in less than a decade. Perhaps most troubling for conservatives is that, after a decades-long downward trend, the number of abortions performed actually ticked up during the Trump presidency.

To those who follow family policy debates closely, much of what the Almanac displays won’t be surprising. The fact that single-parent households are nearly four times more likely to be in poverty than married-couple families, for example, can never be highlighted enough.

But having all the information in one place allows for a fuller and more accurate discussion of what families are facing. Some of the best data on families are scattered across the federal government, from the U.S. Census Bureau to the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Center for Health Statistics, the Bureau for Labor Statistics, and elsewhere. EPPC’s Family Almanac collects the most relevant figures in one place (and has downloadable graphics for easy sharing.)

As family policy takes up a bigger share of the nation’s attention, it will be essential to be creative and proactive, but also to start from a common set of facts. Understanding what families look like, why families matter, and where their biggest pain points are will be crucial in designing efforts to better support parents and children.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

Image: Emma Bauso via Pexels

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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