Conservative Family Policy Must Be Conservative


Published July 28, 2022

Public Discourse

America has officially entered the post-Roe era. More and more states are taking action to protect unborn human life, and elected leaders are contemplating measures to codify the right to life in law. That is reason to celebrate. It is also reason to reengage a debate that has been brewing among conservatives for many years, and is now taking center stage—whether federal policy should proactively support American families, particularly low-income ones. Most notably, three Republican senators have recently introduced a plan for a monthly cash benefit for working families, with the support of pro-life advocacy groups and even enthusiasm from legacy think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.

Conservatives have always appreciated the family as the cornerstone of a healthy society, but the concept of “family policy” has conventionally been associated with the Left. That is beginning to change. Worrying long-term trends—from declining birthrates and delayed marriage to stagnant wages for many and concerns about a purported “two-income trap”—have spurred many conservatives to reexamine how economic forces shape family formation. Some, like the two of us, have concluded that an approach to such issues that relies exclusively on tax cuts is inadequate at best, and at worst undermines American families’ ability to form, be fruitful, and flourish in the face of new cultural and economic pressures.

As conservatives tackle family policy, however, we must avoid two extremes. On the one hand, a certain strain of philosophical conservatism, in the name of epistemological humility, rebuts any attempt to use government to improve parents’ lives. Proponents of this laissez-faire mentality may lament the challenges facing the American family, but they worry that government is powerless to redress them and likely to exacerbate them. On the other hand, a burgeoning, more populist strain perceives the crisis facing the American family as warranting virtually any policy measure to rescue it. Its champions assume that righteous action will outweigh unintended consequences, that trillions can be spent on families without negative repercussions down the road.

Inadequacy of the Laissez-faire Approach

A recent essay in National Affairs by the Manhattan Institute’s Andy Smarick showcases the laissez-faire approach. He decries recent Republican proposals for an expanded Child Tax Credit as emblematic of “the new substance-over-process approach” to conservative policymaking that “gives short shrift to how governing is done.” Smarick offers a particular interpretation of subsidiarity, a concept drawn from Catholic social teaching, as a guiding principle for family policy. Conservatives, he argues, should temper their ambition to use state power and respect different social institutions’ competence to effect change and their proper domain of authority.  If certain realms of authority reach beyond their appropriate scope, he notes, “well-meaning support can distort social arrangements.” Rather than support families directly, Smarick advises policymakers to instead bolster the civic and religious institutions that surround them.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with supporting the institutions of civil society, especially those that offer assistance and connection to families in need; in fact, it is worthwhile. But Smarick’s verdict that family policy qua family policy is a “poorly designed, centralized welfare program[]” that violates subsidiarity is simply incorrect. It betrays not only an unduly narrow conception of the principle but also a poor understanding of the rationale for proposals like an expanded child tax credit. Contra Smarick, direct cash assistance—like that offered through a child tax credit—respects the authority of families by giving parents, not an alphabet soup of Great Society programs, the ability to manage their resources.

It also offers a serious solution to a complex set of social and economic challenges that government alone has the authority and capacity to address. The basis for a family benefit is a simple and unavoidable reality of modern life: adults are most likely to raise children when they are the least likely to afford it. This is not a matter of irresponsibility, but of biology. Within years of setting out on their own, and having had little time to save (and relatively low disposable earnings to save with), parents undertake an obligation that simultaneously raises their expenses and constrains their earnings. Most Americans could probably afford to raise the number of children they would like, in the manner they would like, if they had a lifetime to save for it. But no private institution will lend them the hundreds of thousands of dollars, unsecured by any asset, against the hope that they can repay in the future.

Subsidiarity and Family Benefits

Rather than condemning a family cash benefit as yet another welfare program, as Smarick’s laissez-faire philosophy does, a conservative approach to family benefits would recognize the economic imbalance in the cost of parenthood, and address it through a form of social insurance. Parents bear the cost of childbirth individually, but the benefits—in the form of raising future workers and innovators, and continuing on the human race—flow to the whole of society.

A social insurance program for parents allows workers to effectively “pay in” over the course of their working life, and receive benefits when they are most needed; namely, when raising a child. Only the federal government has both the fiscal capacity and the public responsibility to carry out such a system of support that would allow parents and would-be parents to access more resources during their childbearing years.

Laissez-faire advocates may double down and oppose social insurance on principle, arguing that similar social insurance programs like Social Security are unacceptable government intrusion. Smarick’s analysis, which considers a range of past, present, and proposed policies—including New Deal-era public works programs, the earned income tax credit, and a universal basic income—is silent on the question of social insurance, never mentioning Social Security. But given that most have made their peace with programs like Medicare and unemployment insurance that seek to insulate workers from the vicissitudes of a globalized market, a subsidiarity-affirming form of social insurance aimed specifically at parents would seem to be in order.

And a cash-based social insurance program respects families’ autonomy far more than proposals to provide in-kind benefits, such as government-run childcare or grants to social service providers. A stable, monthly payment allows parents to budget for what fits their family best, and does not force them to change their work-life balance or opt into a particular childcare arrangement to qualify for a benefit. It affirms the principle of subsidiarity by leaving paternalism to the parents.

In fact, cash benefits would not only be less likely to disrupt the pluralistic balance of social institutions that subsidiarity prescribes, but could actually foster the very participatory organizations on which subsidiarity depends. Many parents may want to use a child benefit to have a parent stay home, creating more opportunities for parents to engage in the great work of associational life that Smarick rightly seeks to foster. Families who feel economically pressured to have both parents in the workforce have less time for bake sales, Little League coaching, and preschool co-ops. Markets will, as a general rule, tend toward undermining economically “inefficient” institutions like a single-breadwinner family. Fiscal support from the state can help families that seek to live out that model to invest in civil society.

Avoiding Extravagance

This intuition, however, can be taken too far—and in some cases, already has been. Some on the Right responded to the Dobbs ruling with a kind of Build Back Better envy. Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club, suggested a pro-family GOP offer parents $6,000 per child per year, along with universal daycare vouchers and five months of maternity leave, among other ideas. “The false idol of ‘free markets,’” he later explained, “must be discarded in the ash heap of history for the Republican Party to save America.” A more sober, though no more frugal, approach has been proffered by Gladden Pappin, who outlined a family policy plan with an annual cost nearing $2 trillion.

We shouldn’t automatically discount these plans due to the dollar signs; families are a worthwhile investment. But conservative scholars have long written about the unintended consequences of prior generations’ well-intentioned social welfare spending. Smarick’s concern about crowding out civil society and fostering dependence strike us as unlikely with a modest child benefit. Similarly, a yearly benefit of $3,000-$4,000 doesn’t seem likely to incentivize out-of-wedlock childbearing just to receive the extra cash.

But those adverse consequences, and more, could come into play were family benefits to be implemented on the scale proposed by Pappin and Wax. An over-large child benefit could change the logic of family life from being one aimed at self-sufficiency toward one that enables government dependence. Any benefit should avoid making it possible to live off of government benefits alone.

And large government programs, like giving all families the option for “free” or heavily-subsidized childcare, can exert a more subtle pressure on parents. Making childcare a middle-class entitlement could lead to an increase in what has been called “workism”—finding one’s primary identity in one’s work rather than in family or community life. We can improve how the childcare market operates for parents without sending a signal, with the weight of the federal government behind it, that the “correct,” normative choice for families is to have all parents working full-time. The goal of conservative family policy should be to strengthen families, not to supplant them.

And on a practical level, many Republican voters appear to be uninterested in adopting big-government means for pro-life ends. As Matthew Schmitz recently covered, a GOP primary candidate in deep-red Mississippi offered an initial slate of family policies notable for their boldness, if not their attention to detail. The candidate’s “American Dream” plan included $20,000 payments to newlyweds, $500/month tax credits for parents with teenagers, and five-year maternity leave benefits—all on top of Medicare for All.

Promises to give newly-married couples $20,000 tax credits may have won retweets on Twitter, but they failed to win over voters. The plan was easily demagogued as a “socialist agenda” by a more conventional Republican opponent, who went on to win the primary. Voters in GOP primaries tend not to take kindly to a mindset that condemns free markets as “idols” to be “discarded in the ash heap.” But, as Donald Trump’s successful run for the GOP nomination suggests, many Republican voters are open to having markets constrained and redirected in prudential ways. In order to be successful, family policy should be designed in accord with American values around work, the role of government, and our folk libertarian spirit.

The Right Balance

One such attempt to support families was introduced in June by Senators Mitt Romney, Richard Burr, and Steve Daines.  The “Family Security Act 2.0 (FSA 2.0)” would simplify the confusing tangle of tax credits and deductions for working families and collapse them into a single, predictable monthly benefit: $350 monthly for every child under age six, $250 each month for school-age children. The FSA 2.0 is pro-life, starting benefits four months prior to birth, and pro-marriage, setting the same earnings threshold for a single worker as for a household with a married couple. The plan is fully paid for through consolidating other tax benefits and eliminating the state and local tax (or “SALT”) deduction, an egregious handout to the high-income denizens of high-tax blue states. That, combined with its monthly, rather than annual, payout, should ameliorate most concerns about its pouring more fuel on the inflation fire.

FSA 2.0, as its name implies, is an update of an earlier version released by Senator Romney alone last year. That plan was still pro-life and pro-marriage, but it was also unconditional—payments went to families regardless of whether they had any attachment to the workforce. This feature of the plan was faulted for undoing the progress of 1990s welfare reforms and for violating the basic norm of reciprocity that has undergirded American domestic policy for well over a century. There’s a reason the Biden administration and other progressives only ever talk about “tax relief for working families”; unconditional cash benefits are unpopular with a majority of voters. The FSA 2.0 improves on its predecessor by including a straightforward income threshold, based on a household’s previous year’s earnings, that is achievable for virtually all working families.

FSA 2.0 was predictably lambasted by progressives like the New York Times Jamelle Bouie for backtracking on Romney’s earlier, more universal approach to child benefits. But the second iteration’s connection to work recognizes that work plays an essential role in a flourishing society—kids do best when they have the role model of a parent engaged in the workforce, demonstrating habits like reliability, industriousness, and thrift. Far from leaving the poor behind, FSA 2.0 recognizes that non-working families require a different type of support—namely the safety net—suited to their unique needs and aimed at building them up to self-sufficiency. Unlike its precursor, this version of the Family Security Act preserves Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) as a critical pillar to support families without a connection to work.

The FSA 2.0 is not anti-poverty policy that will crowd out civil society or a big government handout that will remake the social contract. It is a development of social insurance for working families. It is a sensible, conservative approach to family policy that provides incentives to work, recognizes the value of unborn life, and seriously addresses the need to support parents financially. Conservatives should champion it.

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.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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