In recent years, discussions of “family policy” have picked up steam across the political spectrum. On the left, the Democrat-sponsored Build Back Better Act promises subsidized childcare, free universal pre-school services, and an expanded child tax credit, among other things. The Republican senator Mitt Romney of Utah, meanwhile, has proposed a straightforward, monthly cash stipend for families through his Family Security Act. Debates over how best to deliver benefits, and to whom, have frequented the op-ed pages of major newspapers for months.
It’s not hard to see why. The family is perhaps the most important institution in society, and it is the nursery of not only civic belonging but also of religious identity. Leaders on the right and left appear to agree that it is in distress, and that the pandemic has only made it harder for families to thrive. But in order to craft effective laws, policymakers must get clear about what they are trying to accomplish—and what a family actually is. In doing so, they should keep in mind the formative function of law and the contrasting visions animating different types of family policies. They should also look to the past to discern what has worked—and what hasn’t—as we try to strengthen America’s families.
Some on the right want family policies that incentivize marriage and parenthood. In May 2021, The American Conservative published an interview with Katalin Novák, Hungary’s minister for families (and now a presidential candidate). Hungarian mothers can receive reductions in, or total relief from, student loans; women with at least four children are exempt from personal-income tax; newly married couples can get interest-free loans of up to roughly $30,000 and are also eligible for total loan forgiveness following the birth of a third child. In these and other ways (including offering up to several years of financial support for parents, a home-building subsidy, and free or discounted summer camps), Hungary is using the government to promote families with two married parents and, ideally, more than two children.
Some on the left support initiatives that would help families, particularly mothers, better balance work and family. A report by Rasheed Malik of the Center for American Progress, for example, touted the benefits of universal pre-school in Washington, DC, noting that it appeared to increase mothers’ participation in the workforce. Citing research that refers to the influence that childrearing has on many women’s careers as the “motherhood penalty,” Malik argued that subsidized early-childhood schooling could help the many women who, according to surveys, are making “career sacrifices and employment decisions in the face of costly, scarce, and sometimes low-quality childcare options.” In other words, some believe that family policy ought to allow mothers greater freedom to pursue fulfilling, or at least financially rewarding, work.
These and other proposals underscore the questions at play in family-policy debates. Should we seek more marriages, which tend to be linked to better outcomes for children? More children, born either in or out of wedlock, to help secure our country’s future? More opportunities for mothers to join the workforce, thus making use of their talents and realizing their autonomy while contributing to the national economy? More single-earner households, which allow parents greater flexibility while raising children? Some “family-friendly” outcomes are mutually exclusive.
Legislators must also decide what constitutes “the family” for the purposes of government assistance. Is it a married couple with one or more children? Or should the definition extend beyond the nuclear family to include additional generations or extended kinship networks? Should it include single-parent units, cohabitating but unmarried parents, and married couples without children? In privileging one vision of family over another, such legislation will not only reflect the current government’s preferences, it also has the potential to shape public opinion.
Conservative policymakers in particular need to consider the proper role of government when it comes to family life. One need not be a committed libertarian to understand the administrative snafus and unintended consequences that tend to accompany even well-crafted federal policies, and it is natural to question whether there are limiting principles regarding costs and centralized power—that is, whether conservatives should refuse to spend more than a certain amount or refuse to hand the federal government certain powers. As the Biden administration continues to push for a “cradle-to-grave” set of federal programs related to early-childhood education, childcare, paid leave, free community college, and more, questions about the proper role of Uncle Sam in family life are by no means merely conceptual.
Finally, policymakers should carefully evaluate the problems facing families in attempting to address them. Among other things, this will require identifying what Americans actually want from family life.
In a recent survey conducted by American Compass, a right-leaning policy institute led by the analyst and author Oren Cass, around half of Americans of all socio-economic classes reported having fewer children than they would like (excluding respondents who reported that their families are “still growing”). According to a 2013 Gallup poll, the desire among Americans to have children has remained consistently high over decades; nevertheless, the American birthrate has slumped. Some hoped that the birthrate might rise with the post-Great Recession economic growth and the stay-at-home conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, 2020 saw the lowest birthrate in U.S. history, dipping below the previous record lows of 2019 and 2018. The birthrate is now around 20 percent lower than it was in 2007.
Couples who have fewer children than they would like tend to attribute this to work-related constraints. The American Compass survey showed that many Americans choose to limit their family size due to financial concerns. For the upper class, the leading reason is that their “preferred lifestyle or career would be difficult.” And though attitudes about family structure vary greatly, most families “see a full-time earner and a stay-at-home parent as the ideal arrangement for raising young children.” Fifty-three percent of married mothers would prefer to have one full-time breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent, at least while raising children below the age of five. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of all American adults “believe that children with two parents are better off when a parent stays home.”
Of course, having one parent stay at home is financially challenging. In 2004, now-Senator Elizabeth Warren released a book she co-authored with her daughter, businesswoman Amelia Warren Tyagi, on the perils of the “two-income trap.” This phenomenon emerged as women increasingly entered the workforce and two-income families became commonplace. This arrangement increases income, but it can also inflate housing, childcare, and education costs, and it can make family life more inflexible and therefore more vulnerable to shocks caused by unemployment or health crises. Warren and Tyagi called stay-at-home mothers of past generations “the most important part of the safety net” for middle-class families, as they could step in to earn extra income when needed. Now, family finances are often placed at grave risk when either parent is out of work. This is an example of economic and cultural trends changing how the family operates in American society. And like many policy reforms and cultural shifts, the rise in two-income families has both benefits and costs.
Even so, the financial costs of having and raising children do not entirely explain America’s declining birthrate. While the divorce rate in America is down, so is the marriage rate; in 2020, the U.S. hit its lowest recorded level of new marriages, according to a report by the Institute for Family Studies. Not only are Americans less likely to be married today, more women are delaying marriage and hence delaying pregnancy. It has been said that marriage is no longer seen as the foundation for adult life but as a kind of capstone. One consequence of having a first child later in life is the likelihood of having fewer children in total. When women on average spend a smaller proportion of their childbearing years married, they have fewer children.
All this has profound ramifications for the country’s future. When a nation’s fertility rate falls below replacement levels, its population tends to age and then shrink. An aging country can be a country at risk; as Stephanie Murray, a journalist and public-policy researcher, put it in FiveThirtyEight, “Today’s babies are tomorrow’s workers and taxpayers: they’ll not only staff the hospitals and nursing homes we’ll use in old age but also sustain the economy by funding our pensions when we retire, paying the taxes that finance Social Security, Medicare, and many other government programs we’ll rely on, and buying the homes and stocks we invested in to build our savings.”
The country’s low marriage rate also has consequences for child welfare in particular and for social and economic flourishing in general. Marriage stabilizes families. It increases the likelihood that parents will stay together, and it leads men to work more hours, find new jobs before quitting their current ones, and earn more money than their single peers. It also provides a foundation for children’s later success. Being raised in a home with married parents is correlated with positive social and cognitive development, lower poverty and incarceration rates, greater educational advancement, and higher future earnings. And though America’s legacy of racial discrimination continues to adversely affect black families, black children raised by married parents do better on a range of educational and financial outcomes than white children raised in single-parent homes. Marriage also has a way of stabilizing communities—neighborhoods with more marriages tend to be safer and to have lower poverty and greater economic mobility than neighborhoods with fewer intact families.
Marriage rates used to be similar among groups with different income levels. But now marriage is becoming something of a luxury good, seen more often among wealthier and more educated individuals. This phenomenon can ripple across generations; children of low-income families, especially boys, are less likely to marry as adults. And children of wealthy parents are very likely to be raised in married households and to get married themselves.
A final issue worth mentioning is the vulnerability of boys and young men today. This has not been a major part of family-policy discussions, but it should be. Male participation in the labor force is significantly lower than it was decades ago, and men have disproportionately succumbed to what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”: premature mortality associated with drug or alcohol addition, loneliness, hopelessness, and suicide. Young men are falling farther and farther behind women in high-school and college graduation rates. Boys appear to struggle more when they are raised in poverty and single-parent families; they act out more in school and fare more poorly than girls across a plethora of social and educational outcomes. A large part of the racial gap in intergenerational economic mobility is attributable to poor outcomes among black boys. If one of the purposes of the family is to prepare the young to lead healthy, fulfilling, productive lives, then government action designed to strengthen the family must not forget the particular challenges facing boys and young men.
Today’s challenges should also be put in context. Over generations, governing bodies in the United States have tried to support families in countless ways. While there are some perpetual themes—such as helping kids avoid violence or poverty—many policy efforts are tied to specific concerns of the moment. There are far too many initiatives to allow for a comprehensive list. But a brief tour can provide a sense of the varied efforts of the past—and what has or has not worked.
The mid-19th-century “common schools” movement aimed to expand dramatically access to primary education as a means of improving literacy and helping families prepare their children for adult life. As a result, more children received more formal education. The Progressive Era (typically understood as a two-decade period around the turn of the 20th century) saw government reforms related to child labor, juvenile justice, child protective services, workplace safety, and more. Many states and localities developed programs for adoption and foster care. Between 1910 and 1930, 46 states created some form of “mothers’ pension,” monthly cash stipends to support poor single mothers. Many of these programs appealed to Americans’ sense of compassion; reformers highlighted stories of women and children who struggled with poverty through no fault of their own.
Mothers’ pensions served as a model for the Aid to Dependent Children provision in the 1935 Social Security Act and a host of other welfare programs over the next 60 years. These programs also prompted questions, such as whether public assistance should be predicated on employment, or how to assess properly who is deserving of help. The mothers who benefited from mothers’ pensions were not expected to work, and for many years that principle applied to other programs as well. But there are legitimate questions about which recipients of which government programs should be required to work or pursue further education. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Oren Cass criticized the family-policy proposals of both Senator Romney and President Joe Biden on the basis that neither plan ties family payment plans to work requirements.
From 1919 through 1933, the country experimented with Prohibition: the constitutional ban on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol. In its way, this too was a sort of family policy. Alcohol use was understood to be disruptive to the home; there were entirely too many instances of men drinking excessively and becoming violent and unwilling or unable to work. And despite its unpopularity and eventual repeal, Prohibition did help reduce drinking and its associated risks. The basic question that drove prohibitionists continues to inform family-policy debates today: how can policy (the power of the state) be used to improve the functioning of family units—the most intimate of associations?
Upon taking office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt unleashed an array of programs meant to help families get back on their feet following the economic disaster of the Great Depression. He took early aim at the problem of unemployment; the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided direct funding to the states to be passed on to those out of work. The 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, and Civil Works Administration were all designed to get people to work on public projects. These were followed by the 1935 Works Progress Administration, which paid all sorts of people—including actors, artists, and writers—to build new schools, bridges, and other structures across the country. Roosevelt signed the 1933 Home Owners’ Loan Act, which, among other things, provided emergency relief for mortgage payers. In 1934, the federal government also created the Federal Housing Administration to facilitate home financing, catalyze home construction, and more. In 1935, to help elderly family members avoid poverty, the Social Security Act established retirement benefits
We may never arrive at a consensus regarding the New Deal’s success, particularly as to whether it did more to help or hinder America’s economic recovery. But we should note FDR’s impulse to support families (for instance through government programs that paid people to work and enabled them to keep their houses) instead of simply providing money to the destitute. The postwar period saw the flowering of the G.I. Bill, which enabled millions to receive post-secondary education, and the 1953 creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society proposals of 1963 to 1968 funded an enormous range of family-related programs: Medicare, Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act, college loans that became known as Pell Grants, and the Job Corps, as well as federal support for low-income schools, consumer protections, pregnancy, infant care, pediatric clinics, foster care, and expanded child-welfare services. Coming from a poor family in rural Texas, Johnson was determined to expand opportunities for others from similar backgrounds. Johnson helped establish Head Start and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), both of which were aimed at low-income families with young children.
Underlying many of Johnson’s programs was the belief that families could succeed if government gave them a boost. Unlike the mothers’ pension program, which provided financial aid to the poor, many supporters of the Great Society considered its initiatives not just transfers but family “investments”—funding that would help improve families’ lives over the long term. Such thinking was also behind Johnson’s Higher Education Act, which provided financial assistance to students. The idea, of course, was that an investment in post-secondary schooling would increase the lifetime earnings of today’s students.
It is worth noting, however, that today total student-loan debt stands at nearly $1.8 trillion. We should be wary of those defending expensive, expansive “family” initiatives as “investments.” The pages of Commentary and the Public Interest from the 1970s are filled with explanations and demonstrations of how the Great Society would bring about social dissolution, and despite its intentions to do good would in fact cause harm.
Subsequent family policies have been rather scattershot but are still instructive. President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, which spurred a series of legislative efforts over the course of decades. The 1975 Earned Income Tax Credit provided financial assistance to low-income individuals who work. The National Minimum Drinking Act was passed in 1984 with the aim of discouraging states from allowing anyone under the age of twenty-one to purchase alcohol. As with Prohibition, this proved useful in reducing alcohol-related deaths. The Family Support Act (which secured financial support from “deadbeat” parents) was passed in 1988, the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006 (creating a national sex-offender database).
Notable employment-related family policies of this era include the Child Care and Development Block Grant, passed in 1990, which subsidizes early childcare and afterschool programs, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires many employers to provide job-protected, unpaid leave for certain medical and family reasons. Perhaps most famously, the welfare-reform act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, introduced federal aid programs with time limits and work requirements. Republicans in Congress who led the charge for these reforms believed that government assistance should be tied to recipients’ willingness to help themselves, either through work or education. To this list could be added myriad other federal, state, and local programs touching upon childcare and protection, income supports, housing assistance, school zoning, and more.
In some ways, America’s history of family policy is haphazard: we want more stable home incomes along with better childcare outside of the home; more guardrails against risky behaviors and constraints on irresponsible government spending, along with more funding opportunities such as college loans. Some of these programs appear to have succeeded. Child poverty rates have fallen over the last several decades; food, housing, and the workplace are safer than in previous eras; and families today have more educational options than ever before. But we should be cautious in examining what lessons to draw from the past.
It is reasonable to ask what the government can do to help strengthen families. This is an international preoccupation; more than half of low-fertility nations have adopted “pro-natalist” policies aimed at increasing the number of children being born. But it’s also important to bear in mind the tradeoffs involved. The fact that we have limited resources means that leaders must choose from among their priorities and consider the possibility of unintended negative consequences.
Perhaps the most prominent family-related policy proposals today concern access to affordable childcare, which younger workers see as a top priority. The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), one of the federal government’s coronavirus-related spending programs, expanded the federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is meant to offset working families’ child-care expenses. But there are downsides to a major government child-care program. While it might increase labor-force participation, it could have short- and long-term negative effects on children. Spending a significant part of early childhood in a commercial daycare setting rather than with family can adversely affect development and later-life outcomes; it has been associated with greater tendencies toward anxiety, aggression, hyperactivity, and other stress-related problems.
Government childcare subsidies can also inflate childcare costs, rather than simply help families to afford the existing price tag. We have seen this in college-loan experiments; since federal loans have become commonplace, college tuition rates have skyrocketed. And for those concerned about “work-ism”—that is, overemphasis on work at the expense of other social goods—childcare proposals pose the risk of tethering more people to their jobs. This can, among other things, have the effect of reducing fertility rates. When people understand family supports as part of their work benefits, they can become more attached to their employer or employment more generally. This not only undermines a “family first” approach to public policy, it might actually deter couples from having more children. Moreover, if such childcare programs direct families away from their personal networks and toward impersonal childcare centers, those programs can chip away at familial and community bonds.
Finally, childcare subsidies are given to families that choose to pay others to care for their children. It is not obvious that the state should elevate this approach to childcare—which might be the choice of more educated, more affluent, two-earner families—over that of families who choose to have a parent or other relative stay at home with children. Indeed, as we have seen, most Americans think it’s better for kids to have one parent stay home.
Paid family leave has also been a priority for family-policy reformers, many of whom argue that supporting new mothers and fathers would publicly signal the value of family and ensure that prospective parents don’t see the early days of parenthood as a financial loss. The Biden administration has pushed for twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave. But, as with childcare subsidies, such programs imply that the state’s preference is to maintain a parents’ tie to work. That is, if the government’s aim is to provide financial aid to new parents, why should only those working receive the benefit? This is why some would prefer replacing paid leave with a work-agnostic “new-child allowance.”
This argument partly explains why Romney and others prefer straight cash benefits to families; rather than having the government provide childcare or paid leave, direct aid would simply put more money in families’ pockets. Given the long-term negative consequences, especially for boys, of growing up poor, such cash transfers appeal to many. Often, child-allowance proposals are based on a child tax-credit program, whereby a family gets to keep more of its earned income (instead of losing it to taxation) for each child. These initiatives become more controversial when they become “refundable,” or separated from work requirements.
Where Romney surprised many by proposing a direct stipend for families, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri proposed a refundable tax-credit plan that would provide monthly payments to parents conditioned on a minimal work requirement. Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have advocated expanding the child tax credit but oppose turning it into a child allowance that can be accessed by families that lack earnings. Lee and Rubio don’t want to create a welfare program that would distribute federal aid regardless of employment status; they are concerned such programs would disincentivize work.
The success of such programs is still being measured. The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan created a one-year, fully refundable child allowance through the federal child tax credit, and early evidence suggests that it has helped low-income families afford sufficient food on a more stable basis. There is some evidence from other nations that child allowances are associated with higher future birthrates. A reliable stream of income could help families save and feel more comfortable relying on one parent’s income. The federal government spends a staggering amount supporting its oldest citizens (e.g., through Social Security and Medicare); many advocates are now arguing that it should also support the next generation and those rearing them.
But such proposals could repeat the errors of the pre-welfare reform era and disincentivize work among the able-bodied. Some forms of state aid intended to help families could lead to beliefs and behaviors (e.g., dependence on the state, shirking the personal duty to work to support one’s children,) that hurt kids and families in the long run. There is a difference between social-insurance programs—like Social Security—that require individuals to pay into the system, and social-assistance programs—i.e., welfare—that simply provide aid. Social-insurance programs expect something from beneficiaries.
A recent survey found that working-class families support work requirements because of a sense of fairness. They believe receipt of a generous government benefit should be contingent on participation in the workforce. Another survey found only about one in four respondents supported a permanent expansion of a child tax-credit program that was available to all families, even those with no one working. Respondents expressed concern about families becoming dependent on unearned government payments.
But child tax credits and child allowances are not the only way to bolster family finances. Policymakers could acknowledge that family expenses increase during pregnancy, not just after birth, meaning that families should be eligible for benefits like food stamps and child tax credits months earlier. As high housing costs appear to have a negative effect on marriage and fertility rates, we might invest in reforming housing policies. We might also consider reducing parents’ taxes to reflect their children’s contributions to the retirement system; that is, by raising children who will work and pay into Medicare and Social Security, thereby supporting aging generations, parents are producing a future stream of income for these older-age programs. More broadly, policymakers could privilege families over individuals—they could offer married, first-time home buyers housing assistance; provide “marriage bonuses” in the form of tax credits during the first year of marriage; allow two-parent families to pay less in property or sales taxes or receive higher tax deductions, and so on.
Conservative support for pro-marriage policies makes sense inasmuch as conservatives seek government support for preserving a traditional family form, one that is essential for the perpetuation of religious and traditional ways of life. Marriage codifies an individual’s duties; through marriage, the individual has legal responsibilities to a spouse and children and tacit obligations in a community. Marriage can also be a check on “work-ism” and other social norms that can consume our time and energies; marriage indicates that a person has loyalties that take precedence over an employer and much else.
But pro-marriage policies can also be supported by those committed to classical liberalism. By protecting institutions of civil society—whether marriage, faith-based schools, charitable nonprofits, or other formative components of community—policy strengthens the hands of non-governmental actors, providing a bulwark against the power of the state.
Despite the advantages of marriage, such policies generate opposition. Libertarians argue that the government should not be involved in personal, relational matters, for all such government action is an infringement upon individual freedoms. Similarly, some may object to any state preference for traditional marriage, which has historically been tied up with limited opportunities for women; such critics would prefer to follow wherever the autonomous consent of individual adults may lead, which in practice would mean that the state should remain agnostic about how adults form families.
But there are also an array of “family friendly” policy reforms that have less to do with promoting marriage or putting more money in parent’s pockets than with devolving power, so that parents have more control over their lives. Families don’t just want more money and more government services; they want to form living environments that comport with their sense of the good life, including how to raise children and build meaningful connections with those around them. This can be inhibited by distant, domineering, homogenizing policymaking—rules crafted by those far away, rules that empower the government at the expense of civil society, rules that stymie local variation. Family-friendly reforms could include limiting the ability of state governments to overrule local action, helping families create new schools and choose non-district schools, routing government aid through nonprofits instead of government agencies, and protecting the prerogatives of nonprofits, including faith-based organizations.
Perhaps the fundamental challenge of family policy today is that there is no consensus on what family policy ought to aim toward. It can be hard, if not impossible, to square different visions. We can’t simultaneously encourage more two-earner families and one-earner families, nor can we simultaneously move more family functions to government agencies while keeping more family functions in the family. And as we have seen, many if not most legislative attempts to strengthen family life among Americans have a questionable track record. It does not follow, however, that we cannot articulate clear goals. Policymakers on the left and right should acknowledge the undeniable benefits of marriage, and the fact that many Americans want at least the option of having one parent to stay home with children. To arrive at a sound family policy, we must begin by identifying the deeper purposes and practical interests of families.