Politics

What Republicans’ ‘Family Feud’ Gets Wrong About Parenting in America


To get there, Republicans will have to start asking the right questions, and that will be harder to do if more people like me leave the party. But that’s not happening yet. Here’s what they’re getting wrong.

The emergent GOP “family feud” was on full display this summer when the American Enterprise Institute (where I used to work) hosted an event with several of its scholars who debated whether it is more costly to raise a family in America now relative to forty years ago. The guest and provocateur was an in-the-family GOP dissenter: Oren Cass of American Compass, former deputy policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Cass has produced a “Cost of Thriving” index (COTI), claiming that it’s become more costly to raise a family now than in 1985, which as far as I can tell is no magical starting point — although it is my birth year, so I don’t mind it. Cass calculates how many weeks it would take a male worker to afford a basket of middle-class family expenses, including food, housing, health care, transportation and higher education. In 1985, COTI was about 40, meaning a man would need to work for nearly 40 weeks to support a family on his income. In 2022, COTI was 62 — more than the number of weeks in a year. Cass’ conclusion: middle-class status essentially cannot be reached on one income.

For fiscal conservatives, this message was never going to go down easy. The unchallenged assertion that it has become more costly to raise a family has the potential to open the floodgates for new government programs and spending. Thus, Scott Winship and Angela Rachidi of AEI presented government data aimed at undermining Cass’ argument, showing instead that household incomes have risen over the last four decades once taxes and government benefits are accounted for. They also made pointed corrections to Cass’ index, such as not using the sticker price of college for higher education costs, or including the average spending on healthcare insurance instead of bundling employer and employee contributions. After the event, AEI released a publication called “The Cost of Thriving Has Fallen: Correcting and Rejecting the American Compass Cost-of-Thriving.” For policy wonks, the back-and-forth drama doesn’t get much better than that.

My own interpretation of the data on family affordability, written up in a paper last fall, lands somewhere between Cass and Winship. Certain child-related costs are increasing more than income for many low-income households (in particular for renters and families needing childcare outside the home). An increase in single parenting compounds affordability challenges, and existing government supports don’t reach many low-income families and in other cases, have made affordability challenges worse. (More on that shortly.) But limiting the debate to economics — and especially attempting to compare today’s childrearing costs to past generations — is unsatisfyingly insufficient to determine what support families need to flourish today.

The reality is there’s no number, no index, no magical inflection point even should one side “win” the economic analysis. Stasis or marginal improvement doesn’t necessarily indicate that things are good. The trend line is not determinant of whether action or inaction is needed, whether the metric is COTI or median household income.

Even if the economic well-being of families has dramatically improved over the last four decades would that mean no further interventions are warranted? Consider that child poverty has actually fallen to record lows, which would suggest that we can shift our focus elsewhere. But even with those improvements, children remain the most impoverished demographic in America. Is that status quo acceptable? Consider also that few if any parents had paid parental leave back in the 1980s. (I often hear that as a reason to not create such a policy now.) But the research is robust that paid leave leads to a host of economic and health benefits for infants and parents. Ideally, we want our children to have more opportunity, more security than what we’ve had. If we have the ability to improve the next generation’s lives, even to the point of being better than ours, isn’t that worth pursuing?

If the end goal is making policy that addresses the real challenges affecting families, that requires a much broader discussion. At the AEI event, Rachidi, my former colleague and coauthor, tried to argue that point, noting that there has been a measurable decline in social capital in terms of marriage and friendships, and how that may make people feel more economically exposed even if their income is stable or higher after taxes and transfers. She was onto something.

The truth is that costs and income are only part of the story, and so far the Republican “family feud” has failed to grapple well with this reality. In June, Pew Research released a report, “Parenting in America Today,” that looked at what parents worry about. The top concern was mental health. Nearly three quarters of parents told the researchers that they are concerned about their children being anxious or depressed, with 40 percent saying they were extremely concerned. This is not an unfounded concern; historic levels of teenage anxiety have been widely reported, especially among girls. More than half of parents report being extremely or somewhat concerned about their child being bullied or attacked, and a quarter of all parents are extremely or very concerned that their child will be shot. This is something new, and it’s deeply stressful for families.

There’s more. In surveys asking if their kids will be better off than they are, parents are decidedly pessimistic. Trust in public schools is at an all-time low, securing the confidence of only a quarter of parents, while the cost of private schools even for well-to-do families are a stretch. Fewer families have the resources and stability of two married parents as economist Melissa Kearney’s forthcoming new book shows. Many parents (especially fathers) report spending less time with their kids than they want. They report having fewer kids than they’d like due to costs, especially child care costs. Rates of religion in America are way down, and along with it, “the village” that helps support families is unraveling, as Jess Grose has documented in the New York Times. The Harvard Human Flourishing Program — hardly a megachurch franchise — reports that kids from religious families have better mental health outcomes, including more happiness, less depression and less risky behavior. Most parents (71 percent) are very concerned about their children’s screen time, a seemingly ubiquitous feature of school, home and friend’s houses, another brand new stressor.

The broader context of what American families are facing might help to explain why showing an up-and-to-the-right chart of average household income is probably not going to resonate with parents and might prematurely let policymakers off the hook.

Combined with economic pressures, there is a generalized anxiety around parenthood these days. Raising children is the most sacrificial and vulnerable act a human can undertake, especially as a mother. And perhaps because this generation is doing so at a time of significant technological, demographic, economic and political shifts, this helps explain why there’s at least some reduction in family formation and newfound anxieties for those who plow ahead.

Back in the old days, the discipline of economics was intertwined with politics and ethics. The same should be true for evaluating the well-being of families today. When the whole picture is taken into account, if there’s any ability to help or support Americans raising young kids today, a wide accounting of the circumstances would suggest that we do so.

Even for — and especially for — pro-family conservatives.

I’d be remiss not to point out here that a certain version of reframing family policy is very much underway within the more populist wing of the Republican Party. Here, the problem facing families is not being defined as affordability, but changes in marriage and childrearing patterns, and this type of conservative leans toward government promotion of marriage and childrearing… and religion.

There’s been growing interest among conservatives ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Patrick Deneen’s new book in Hungary-type reforms for supporting marriage and big families; those policies include economic loans that are forgiven for couples who stay married and have at least three kids, and allowing families with four or more kids to not pay income tax. These are certainly expensive ideas, which is not a reason to do it, but they should give small-government conservatives pause. I think there’s a question about the efficacy of these reforms; I’m not sure relationship decisions can or should hinge on one-time economic transactions — it kind of feels like paying people to have friends to combat our loneliness epidemic. Republicans have long derided Democrats for making European comparisons they see as apples and oranges, which I tend to agree with, but now they are doing the same. But perhaps most importantly, I’m concerned that the funds wouldn’t go to where the need is the greatest. As AEI scholar Charles Murray wrote in his book, Coming Apart, married parents tend to be wealthier and more educated and probably shouldn’t be triaged first for support. And few American women (only 14 percent) go on to have four children. Maybe we should start with peoples’ first baby.

And I’ll also say it, even though I don’t want to, that there’s an off-putting thread running through these policies, at least for this suburban mom. It was on display when former President Donald Trump said that the men would be “so lucky” with his baby bonus idea, implying that fatherhood is about the sex. You can also see it even with that well-meaning contingent of conservatives who emphasize stay-at-home parenting and promote large families but who don’t discuss helping mothers transition back into the labor force, or giving working parents protections so they can be with their children if they would like to, or supporting the mom who was going to get an abortion and didn’t. All that, well, it doesn’t rub right. Neither does the fact that Cass calculates affordability based on male incomes alone. Many polls show a preference for the man to be the breadwinner, and male earnings appear correlated to marriageability. I get that. But families make a range of decisions about children and work. The reality is that 40 percent of households are headed by breadwinning moms. There’s a willing blindness to that reality that feels self-defeating. And the tone and assumptions are likely enflame divides, not bring people together. The culture wars are already burning hot as it is.

This summer, the Wall Street Journal editorial board praised Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ economic policy for tax cuts and for not “falling for fads” like the Child Tax Credit (a signature plank of 2017 GOP-tax legislation). Shortly thereafter, the paper ran an article, entitled “The Tragedy of Being a New Mom in America,” citing our high maternal mortality rate and the high rates of anxiety and depression among new parents, attributed in part to lack of paid parental leave relative to every other developed nation.

This dichotomy is representative of a party — indeed, of a conservative movement — that’s in transition, caught between supply-side economics, old-school family values and new data and realities. Some in the GOP have zeroed in on economics and a limited government approach, arguing that as long as income is more or less flat from the 1980s, well then, our work is done. Others say that our marriage and fertility rates look nothing like the 1980s, and that only a big government approach can get us back there.

Meanwhile, the data are glaring that the status quo right now isn’t working. We need practical, incremental steps to make family life better today — ideally, in ways that would generate broad bipartisan support so that families could depend on them for more than four years at a time, and in ways that would signal to American families that the Republican Party isn’t as shallow about the real needs of families as the culture wars would suggest.

The sooner the GOP starts debating how to do this, the better.

Here’s my hope: That the back-and-forth within the GOP speaks to a reframing in the works today among a broad group of thinkers, policymakers and parents seeking to improve life for today’s families with children.

We are one year out from the Dobbs decision, which has left an open window for anti-abortion conservatives to show how they will extend their commitment to children beyond the womb. Several states have taken actions such as expanding Medicaid to support new mothers, but those are the exceptions. For the most part, the Republican-led states with the tightest restrictions on abortion have also been the most tightfisted when it comes to policies and programs that support new parents and children.

GOP presidential contenders should keep this in mind as the campaign begins to heat up. You don’t normally run for president saying that things are awesome just as they are, but you propose changes. If a candidate goes to a playground and looks at parents in the eye and says things are awesome for people raising kids right now — that isn’t going to fly, regardless of the economic statistics in his or her back pocket.

Can Washington improve the realities that parents are facing? As a good, limited-government conservative, I’d have to say some, but probably less than you, me, or other parents probably want. So it’s important for politicians to not promise the sky here. Raising children is always going to be stressful (as well as joyful) and costly. No policy can fully change that. It’s also important to emphasize the role of communities, and social networks, and extended families and churches, all of which have a role to play.

But just because there’s a limited role for government, doesn’t mean there isn’t one at all. Policy improvements could help to change the status quo for families, begin to build trust among parents that their representatives care about people like them and take steps toward becoming a society that’s more accommodating for parents and children. And it may be where all of the Republican Party’s factions finally are able to find some consensus. As Nikki Haley masterfully said in the first Republican presidential debate in response to a question on abortion, “can’t we all agree that …” This framework could carry water for the elephant.

For example, can’t we all agree that babies shouldn’t be needlessly separated from mothers and fathers in the days immediately after birth? Conservatives tend to be no fan of the swamp, but if our tax dollars are going for federal employees having 12 weeks off for their newborns (a Trump-era policy), well then, shouldn’t that be the baseline for all working parents? Currently only a small share of workers receive such benefits from their employer, it’s a coin flip if they have job protection following birth. Most working parents report not being able to spend the time with their infants that they’d prefer. Conservatives could lead on setting boundaries to protect the early weeks of parenthood and make sure the private sector doesn’t separate new parents and children too early.

Another policy conservatives should support is a school choice program for early education. Republicans should agree to fully fund bipartisan state block grants for child care so that all eligible families can receive high-quality child care and pre-K education through a place of their choosing — faith-based groups, home-based groups, or schools. Each state would have prerogative for how to build out their own system; Texas will likely look a lot different from Massachusetts. Conservatives, as Romney has already proposed, could lead the charge in helping to rework some of the existing spending into an easier-to-access cash support, reducing government bureaucracy along the way.

It doesn’t have to be new spending; it can be old spending done better. Consider that there were 3.6 million babies born in the U.S. last year. What if each of these children received a $10,000 education voucher every year for five years? It could be used on child care, music lessons, Mother’s Day Out at church, or preschool at any place of a parents’ choosing. Whatever is not used (say, for stay-at-home parents) could be kept in a 529 account to help pay for private school, college, vocational training, or some other education option. Unlike paying people cash, this money is directly connected to skills that would benefit the children, parents and society. The result would be that all children from ages 0-18 (when accounting for public school) would have access to care and education programs that align with their families’ needs and values — a historic school choice endeavor. Using current birth rates and back-of-the-envelope math, the price tag would be $180 billion a year, relative to the approximately $120 billion currently spent on the Child Tax Credit each year.

Finally, conservatives could lead the charge in a number of policy areas that involve real-world harms to kids, including reducing children’s social media exposure and adopting bipartisan gun safety rules designed to protect children. They should also address housing costs and college costs — regardless of whether those costs are technically up, down or sideways — by eliminating costly zoning rules that artificially drive up housing costs and creating viable career pathways through apprenticeship and vocational training that don’t require a costly college credential. They can take the lead on addressing our historic debt that will fall on future generations, one that’s largely the result of generous spending for older-age Americans and little spent on children who eventually will be responsible for paying for it.

Is this the GOP family policy agenda? These ideas haven’t made it into mainstream conservative thought, but they are bubbling up here and there from thinkers on the right. As the larger party structures wrestle with different frames for supporting families and children, made more urgent by the Dobbs decision, I have hope that they’ll turn to some of these. Not just for their own sake or as bait for women voters. But because the country we love depends on healthy and thriving families; pro-family conservatives know that in their core.

This generation of parents and kids is facing a unique confluence of pressures. Nostalgia for the old days, fanning culture wars and economic data wielded to shut down debate doesn’t help. A party that’s truly pro-family needs fresh and innovative ideas of its own. Otherwise, the rhetoric rings hollow and becomes another missed opportunity for reform, another turnoff for millennial women who’ve already left the party in droves.



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