The Pro-Family Agenda Republicans Should Embrace After Roe

Published May 7, 2022

New York Times

The leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization allows social conservatives a glimpse into a post-Roe future. If his draft ends up the majority opinion, those who marched and prayed and rallied and voted for half a century to recognize in law the value of every human life will soon be celebrating — and rightly so.

In the wake of such a victory, the movement that describes itself as pro-life and pro-family must encompass a broader vision of policy than just prohibiting access to abortion. Activists who have worked to render abortion not just illegal but also unthinkable are tired of having to respond to the shopworn cliché about being pro-life only until the baby is born. But a world in which states have the power to restrict abortion is one that compels a greater claim on public resources to support expectant mothers facing crisis pregnancies and to seek to make all parents’ lives a little easier.

Some Republicans who were elected on anti-abortion rhetoric might find themselves politically vulnerable — unless they lean into the ongoing political realignment and put themselves on the side of working-class parents. The end of Roe will mean that pro-family rhetoric will need to be backed up with policy proposals that match.

Culture war issues like critical race theory and gender ideology have led some Republicans to adopt the moniker of a “parents’ party,” but fully meriting that title requires addressing families’ biggest concerns, both culturally and economically. An authentically pro-life, pro-family approach must take seriously the challenges that women and families experience not only during and immediately after pregnancy but also in the years that follow.

The first area of focus needs to be the immediate needs of women facing unexpected pregnancies. As John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life, told The Atlantic last September, a post-Roe society “would require a higher level of commitment and investment” than the work already being done by crisis pregnancy centers and other ministries aimed at supporting mothers.

Some women who choose abortion do so reluctantly or feel forced into it by economic circumstances. Helping women, including low-income and working-class women, gain access to more resources during pregnancy and after childbirth will reduce the demand for abortion while state legislatures pass bills restricting the supply.

Republican lawmakers should coalesce around a legislative package that takes seriously the unique needs of mothers and their babies. The Biden administration’s temporary expansion of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage to mothers for up to one year postpartum should be made permanent. A modest paid leave program should ensure that all parents are able to take at least a few weeks off work around the birth of a child. Funding could be expanded for traditionally bipartisan efforts like home visiting programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The traditional limited-government response might have been to oppose this kind of social spending for fear of encouraging dependency or reducing labor-force participation. But a growing recognition that policy should treat families that want to have a parent at home equitably and should prioritize those early, irreplaceable months of parent-child bonding is gradually leading Republicans in a direction that could come to terms with greater support for expectant and new mothers.

Beyond the programs immediately relevant to childbirth, policymakers should turn their attention to the demands placed on parents after those first, sleepless postpartum nights. Conservative politicians could take a major step toward strengthening the family as the core unit of society by making all working families eligible for an expanded child tax credit.

Before last year’s temporary expansion, roughly one-third of American kids — about 23 million children — lived in families that received less than the full amount of the child benefit. (For example, before the expansion, a family with two kids making $20,000 annually would be eligible for a child tax credit check of only $2,625, while one making $200,000 would receive the full $4,000.) Changing the suite of child-related benefits in the tax code to a $300 monthly benefit, with an additional $50 per month for children under 6, would be a tangible way of making low-income and working-class parents’ lives easier.

Last year, of course, the Biden administration expanded the child tax credit to virtually all families, including those with no workers. But as I explored for The Times last year, many working-class parents viewed the idea of unconditional cash benefits going to families without a worker as fundamentally unfair. Polling, too, suggests that child benefits with no connection to work are unpopular.

A conservative pro-family economic agenda would incorporate the insight that work is an important part of being engaged in society and providing for one’s family. This principle could be connected to the child tax credit in a method designed to be clear and administratively simple: To be eligible for the monthly payments, families would be required to hit an earnings threshold, such as the single-person federal poverty line ($13,590 a year in 2022). Families with earnings below that threshold would see their benefit scaled down, assuaging conservative concerns about perverse labor force incentives. (Parents who earned 50 percent of the threshold would, for instance, see their monthly child benefit amount reduced by half but continue to be eligible for safety-net programs.)

This approach would create an easily understandable linkage between receiving the child benefit and having at least one parent working and would be partly paid for by collapsing the tangle of existing child benefits, earned-income tax credit adjustments and child care deductions into a straightforward monthly benefit. It would recognize that families shouldn’t lose benefits for having additional children and ensure that low-income couples don’t face a marriage penalty.

Beyond the tax code, congressional Republicans could play to their supply-side strengths and champion a cost-of-living agenda aimed at some of parents’ biggest headaches: health care, child care and housing. They could listen to Robert Orr of the center-right Niskanen Center and boost the number of medical professionals while experimenting with increased cost sharing for maternal and child health care. They could expand child care options by bolstering the capacity of faith-based and community providers rather than relying on large-scale subsidies. And they could lower the cost of housing by attacking environmental regulations and restrictive zoning laws that make it difficult for housing supply to meet demand.

This policy agenda will require Republicans to restrain their usual impulse to reach for tax cuts as a cure-all. But if it is put into practice, they can showcase how parents’ lives can be made easier by applying traditional conservative principles about work, incentives and regulation to contemporary problems, without necessitating Build Back Better-style federal intervention.

A favorable Dobbs decision would certainly not turn the G.O.P. into a European-style Christian democratic party overnight. But some state-level action is showing signs of a party trending in a more pro-family direction while retaining its core principles. Texas’ backdoor abortion ban got most of the headlines, but the state also passed a bipartisan expansion of Medicaid for mothers up to six months after giving birth. Idaho and Oklahoma, with legislatures dominated by Republicans, have introduced state-level child tax credits, and the politically divided Minnesota may become the 10th to do so, as part of ongoing budget negotiations.

At the national level, key Republican figures, including Senators Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney and the Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, have suggested a more working-class-friendly economic agenda. And whatever else can be said about the Trump presidency, his disruption of conventional G.O.P. policies means certain economic pieties can now be openly questioned.

The end of Roe will require a new type of politics. A G.O.P. that styles itself as more populist has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to pregnant women and families writ large. If they fail to do so, they will not only put their political victories at risk but also leave unprotected the very people the movement to end Roe has sought to help: pregnant women and their unborn children.

Mr. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, and a former senior policy adviser to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

Photo by Chris Hardy on Unsplash

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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