Published March 6, 2023
There has recently been a lot of chatter in Washington about family policy, and surprisingly to many people, a lot of it has happened among Republicans. Senators like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio have released proposals that offer financial benefits to many American households for children, while other conservatives have talked about becoming a “parents’ party.” The overturning of Roe v. Wade has accelerated this trend.
But the center of gravity in the Republican Party is still more comfortable picking culture war fights than offering policy solutions. A true party for parents needs to provide something for their pocketbooks as well as for their values. Republicans, still grappling with their newfound identity as the party of the working class, need to understand that a pro-family agenda that doesn’t provide material support to families will be, at best, half-baked.
The path forward for Republicans is to listen to parents, particularly those without a college degree who have too often been left out of such discussions, and respond with tangible policy solutions. A “popularist” version of a conservative governing agenda — which would be heavily informed by polling — has the potential to put the meat on the bones of a parents’ party approach to politics. And critically, it could attract at least some bipartisan support.
Polling I did for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in conjunction with the Institute for Family Studies and YouGov suggests five key areas of focus: improving the child tax credit, protecting kids online, supporting new parents, promoting strong families with involved fatherhood and striving to eliminate marriage penalties in our tax code and benefit programs.
The research should make one thing clear to conservative politicians: It’s not George W. Bush’s Republican Party any more, and their policy preferences should shift accordingly. College-educated Republican parents, for example, would especially like to see elected officials focusing on more issues like promoting the so-called success sequence (that is, earn at least a high school diploma, get a job and then marry before having any children) to high schoolers, enforcing the paying of child support and keeping kids from getting access to pornography online.
Republican parents without a college diploma support those ideas, too. But they are much more likely to support actual spending for families — a full child tax credit to every family with a worker present, assistance in paying for child care, social spending on pregnant mothers and elimination of tax code provisions and safety net policies that are more generous to couples who live together than those who marry. And as the parties increasingly sort along educational lines, parents without college degrees are the engine of today’s Republican Party.
A pro-family agenda coupled with cultural and economic populism also has appeal to liberals. For example, over 80 percent of Republican and Democratic parents agreed that it is both “too easy for kids to find explicit content online” and that tech companies should be required to obtain parents’ permission before allowing minors to create a social media account.
The research suggests an agenda that seeks to make it easier for couples to marry would garner support from most parents, not just conservatives. Among Republican parents, as well as Democratic parents without a college degree, a majority thought the government should do more to promote marriage. By contrast, college-educated Democratic parents were least likely to state a preference for policies that promoted marriage and the most likely to say they saw the institution as “outdated.”
So a political movement that championed marriage on the level of both language and concrete policy would appeal to the bulk of parents while also highlighting where the college-educated Democrats’ preferences diverge from the mainstream.
Pro-family policies could, however, err too far in the other direction. Explicit measures to encourage having children, additional assistance to large families or a tax credit for newly married couples all received some of the lowest approval marks, and across both parties. Over 60 percent of parents agreed with the sentiment that “people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to raise them without government assistance,” highlighting why any successful agenda should be grounded in American values of self-reliance.
This impulse helps explain attitudes toward the child tax credit. Many parents, Democrats and Republicans alike, wanted to see a work requirement attached to the credit. But a hypothetical child benefit that fully benefited families so long as someone in the family was working would be supported by nearly 80 percent of Republican and Democratic parents.
A conservative approach to child benefits or paid leave may attract some bipartisan support. They can be done in fiscally prudent ways — the Family Security Act, introduced last year by Senator Romney and his Republican colleagues Steve Daines of Montana and Richard Burr of North Carolina, was written to be budget-neutral, and a modest paid family leave program with universal eligibility could be had for under $20 billion annually.
At the state level, Republican governors are already fleshing out what a fully pro-family governing agenda could look like. In Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte has proposed a $1,200 tax credit for young children, prioritized housing affordability by making it easier to build in the state and created an education credit for workers in the skilled trades. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee recently expanded Medicaid coverage for pregnant women, including a proposal to cover two years’ worth of diapers.
Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma has proposed eliminating the state’s tax on groceries and expanding fatherhood programs. Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah recently signed a bill joining Arizona and Iowa in giving all parents assistance in finding the school that is right for their children and has announced a willingness to explore new ways of keeping kids safe online. And Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has sought to eliminate sales tax on necessities like cribs and strollers and to promote engaged fatherhood.
But this shift must ultimately be solidified in Washington, and for now, the Biden administration’s failure to push through its grand visions for progressive family policy has left room for others to act. A Democratic Party with enough political flexibility could redraft its policies along some of these lines for broader appeal — though its cultural preferences may make that play more challenging. In embracing a meaningful pro-parent agenda, Republicans also have a prime opportunity to go on offense.
The party should embrace an agenda that empowers parents to protect their kids online, buffers families against the pressures of the modern economy and eliminates barriers to starting a family. That approach would help the movement traditionally known as the party of family values become the party of authentically valuing families.
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.