Conservatives remain united in their support of the American family yet divided about how best to turn that support into effective policy. While the public debate is critical, it centers on a few policy ideas, like child allowances, paid leave, and subsidized child care. However worthwhile such ideas may be, it is incumbent on policymakers to think more holistically about the challenges families face and the reforms needed to address them.
This forum attempts to broaden the scope of the debate with a discussion of what constitutes family policy and which levers best support working families. It gathers writers and policy analysts from across the right-of-center to apply a family-focused lens to policy challenges from health care to housing, taxes to education. The proposals offered here reflect the wide range of conservative opinions and priorities and aim to move the public debate on family policy forward.
- Building Better Foster Homes | Naomi Schaefer Riley, American Enterprise Institute
- Creating Flexible, Family-Friendly Schools | Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, The Catholic University of America
- Making Room for Families to Live | Salim Furth, Mercatus Center
- Insuring Healthcare for Working Families | Robert Orr, Niskanen Center
- Setting a Goal for Family Support | Gladden Pappin, University of Dallas
- Taxing Families Like Companies | Jon Schweppe, American Principles Project
- Making Young Men Marriageable | W. Bradford Wilcox & Peyton Roth, American Enterprise Institute
Building Better Foster Homes
Naomi Schaefer Riley, American Enterprise Institute
Regularly lost in the debate over family policy are those children separated from their families or without a permanent home—namely, the hundreds of thousands of American children in the nation’s child welfare system.
Last year, the federal government reimbursed states $5.2 billion for children staying in foster care. Critics of the system frequently point out that “you get what you pay for”—that is, paying states for nights that kids spend in foster care will only lead to more kids spending more nights in foster care. Instead, they argue, we should focus on preventive services to keep families together or to ensure that they can be reunified as quickly as possible.
But taking money away from foster care in order to spend it on programs—only a few of which are proven to work—would lead to a decline in the number and quality of foster homes and risk placing children into worse settings. In California, for instance, taking money away from group homes has led to more children being placed unnecessarily in juvenile detention or psychiatric facilities. Putting the squeeze on foster care dollars will only create worse outcomes for children.
Over the last three decades, the population of children in the U.S. has grown by almost 10 million, and the amount of federal dollars spent on foster care maintenance payments has more than tripled. Yet the number of kids in foster care has actually remained fairly steady—between 400,000 and 570,000 at any point in time over the past 30 years. The number of kids in foster care and the number of nights they spend there are therefore not necessarily a factor of money spent. Rather, there seems to be an artificial ceiling on foster care: there are only so many available homes. Once states reach that threshold, caseworkers must either place kids in group homes or hotels or office floors until something else comes available. Or caseworkers simply put a limit on children being removed from their families, even if they are at risk.
What these children and their caseworkers need are more options. Not every foster home is right for every child. Some families can take babies. Some can take children with medical needs. Some have room in their homes and their hearts for sibling groups. But because there is almost always a shortage of homes, caseworkers must constantly push square pegs into round holes. Children thus often get moved into several different placements, a traumatic experience that can not only affect children’s wellbeing but make it harder for them to reunite with family or be adopted out of foster care.
To improve foster care, we should start paying states to create more options for more kids. Instead of removing seats in a high-stakes game of musical chairs, we would be adding them.
Though it may seem wasteful to outside observers, we should be paying states to have a certain number of empty foster beds, in homes that will take every kind of child and even multiple children when necessary. As a national faith-based campaign has put it, there should be “more than enough foster and kinship families for every child to have an ideal placement.”
We should also invest in the resources to monitor and improve the foster care system as a whole. Recruiting, training, and retaining stable foster parents has proven to be a fundamental challenge of the system. Currently about half of foster parents quit within the first year. The challenges are compounded by a lack of basic information. The federal government currently doesn’t keep track of how many foster homes are licensed in each state, and many states are in the dark themselves.
We should be collecting these data and tracking which local private and public agencies do a better job of recruiting and training quality foster parents and how they do so. Publicizing this information and sharing best practices with other agencies might improve recruitment messaging and support for stable foster parents who are more likely to be engaged for the long term.
If we want to support all American families raising children, we must spend our federal child welfare dollars wisely by rewarding states that recruit, train, and support stable, middle-class families, who are willing to provide a long-term home for children without.
Creating Flexible, Family-Friendly Schools
Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, The Catholic University of America
School choice policy has come a long way since Milton Friedman’s plea for universal vouchers in 1955. Today, 28 states plus DC and Puerto Rico employ a range of vehicles to provide public funds for education, ranging from tax credit scholarships to cash vouchers. Yet the vast majority of such programs are minuscule, and policymakers still see education policy as separate from family policy. This is a huge mistake. K-12 education is the single greatest family policy lever at our disposal.
First is logistics. Ask any working parent, especially a mom, what it is like to juggle work and school schedules that never align over all the seasons of the year. Nothing in recent memory has illustrated the inflexibility of public schools like the COVID-19 pandemic. School choice has the potential to explode the rigid, Borg-like public options on the table, in favor of “small batch” schools that meet families’ needs better.
Second is affordability. Many young couples, because of the poor quality and culture of public schools, want to give their children an alternative education. But private schools range from $5,000 per child per annum to well over $20,000. Public schooling is just as costly, but the costs are implicit in the form of capitalized property values. Families may feel compelled to handle the costs by having fewer children than they want—a tragedy of poorly designed policy. Instead of relieving families of a sizable cost-deterrent, wasted education dollars foist new ones upon them.
Third is meaning. Parents toil at their work to provide a better life for their kids. Education is crucial to that goal. Schools connect the work of parents to rising opportunity for their kids. Unfortunately, with the exception of wealthy Americans, working parents have no agency over the direction of their kids’ futures and have been robbed of an organic part of the meaning of their work.
We can and should reform our education system to better support working families. Every education dollar we allocate on behalf of every working parent should be at her own disposal to make a better life for her children, drawing on the social trust she has accrued through her hard work.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are the best vehicle for such flexibility and choice. ESAs are accounts funded by states, owned by parents, and administered by third parties for the purposes of education-related spending. The idea is to expand education options for families by providing additional funding for children’s education expenses over and on top of what they are currently entitled to receive in local public schools.
Policymakers should establish a ten-year federal, universal ESA program that transitions to universal state funding at the end of the ten years. Contributions should be in the range of 80–120% of current average per-pupil spending in states. With a national average around $13,000, the low end of this range suggests a $10,000 per child per year contribution. Dollars should be broadly applicable not only for schooling but any expense reasonably related to schooling, including supplemental programs, private or parochial schools, home education, enrichment classes, extracurricular programs, therapy, and so forth. Families who economize can roll-over unused portions and accumulate the balance for college tuition. For a family with three or more children, these payments may be large enough to enable a parent to leave the workforce and educate her children at home.
Beyond immediate flexibility for parents, the decade-long program would give state government and school systems time to transition from their current funding structures to one organized around universal, state-funded ESAs. Families and communities would likewise have a decade to build new schools and programs with federal ESA dollars, injecting funds into the education economy and seeding new innovations.
The program would cost an estimated $750 billion per year over 10 years (if ESA contributions average $10,000 per child per year) or about ten times the current budget of the Department of Education. But it would expire after a decade, with the promise of a substantially reduced Department thereafter.
At the end of the decade, the landscape of schools would likely be very different from what we have today, and the landscape of American family life will be vastly better and more optimistic.
Making Room for Families To Live
Salim Furth, Mercatus Center
Where do families want to live? Urbanists will point out that the high price of housing in walkable, city neighborhoods indicates that demand is especially high. Suburbanists will note that very few families live in those places, and that most new houses—even during the urban renaissance of the 21st century—are built at the suburban fringe.
What neither group is happy to admit is that families can thrive in all sorts of environments—but only if they can afford to live there. High housing costs can reshape young adults’ lives. In the costliest cities, the price of housing is discouraging marriage, delaying fertility and homeownership, and driving families away.
The main obstacle standing in the way of affordability is regulation that creates artificial scarcity in desirable locations. Study after study confirms that the Econ 101 model of supply and demand basically works for the housing market: more supply lowers prices. I use the rule of thumb that a 3% increase in the housing supply lowers rent by 2%. It doesn’t especially matter how the new supply arrives—luxury or affordable, single-family or multifamily, in quaint town centers or on sprawling cul-de-sacs.
Housing supply is mostly dictated by local land-use regulations. These regulations not only prevent paper mills and big-box stores on neighborhood streets; they also dictate a narrow range of approved activities on each lot: offices here, retail there, one-family houses here, two-family houses there. The result is that disfavored land uses, especially cheaper types of housing, get squeezed.
In many places, zoning is openly hostile to families with children, since they are perceived as a fiscal cost. Getting apartments built is easier if the units are small enough to preclude families. My hometown of Milton, Massachusetts, for example, has zones where it allows multiunit buildings—but only if those are restricted to “the Elderly” and thus kid-free. And my current Maryland suburb was recently under a construction moratorium because the schools are desirable and crowded. (The moratorium was ineffective: 70% of new schoolkids are in families like mine, who buy homes in empty-nester neighborhoods).
In addition, each “zone” in a community typically has a minimum lot size, which requires that every house lot is above a certain size. This has two effects: it boosts prices and, more importantly, puts an implicit cap on the number of households that can live in each neighborhood.
High housing costs cut through the city vs. suburb arguments: when most neighborhoods are out of reach, a family chooses where to live based mostly on its budget, not its preferences. Regulatory reform can break through and allow far more families in the nation’s priciest cities to really exercise choice over where they live, even if that’s as simple as cutting down a commute so that everyone’s home for dinner at 6.
The best regulatory reforms vary by context. In growing suburbs, the highest priority for achieving broad affordability is decreasing the minimum lot size. In cities and established suburbs, the highest priority is allowing apartment buildings in the 4- to 8-story range.
Suburban policymakers can further support a growing population of young families by ensuring that their towns work with developers to reserve land for schools, paths, and playgrounds in the midst of growing neighborhoods. In cities, well-maintained sidewalks and safe crossings are equally welcoming to wheelchair users and stroller-pushers.
Family-friendly housing policy means meeting basic needs first: allowing builders to satisfy the need for affordable, stable homes with reasonable commutes. If an area’s average rent or home price is above the national average, it’s likely that many middle-class families are living where they can afford, not necessarily where they want.
The first step to creating and preserving family-friendly neighborhoods—urban or suburban—is to get home prices within reach for working families.
Insuring Healthcare for Working Families
Robert Orr, Niskanen Center
The American health care system is far from family-friendly. One feature stands out: employer-sponsored health insurance (ESHI).
Most Americans (56%) are covered by ESHI plans, which they can receive tax-free. But attaching health insurance to employers creates unnecessary headaches for working families.
Loss of a job can mean losing coverage. An employment-based system is especially hard on low-wage and blue-collar workers, whose employers are less likely to provide health coverage.
Moreover, workers cannot take their insurance with them, making job changes difficult for families with high health care costs. A lack of alternative health insurance options may reduce job-switching by 15 to 25 percent. Families are denied the opportunity to shape coverage according to their needs, effectively undercutting what would be a key benefit of our private-dominant model. Instead, these decisions are overwhelmingly made by employers and government.
Even when families manage to maintain coverage, they’re shuffled between sometimes a dozen or more different health insurance plans over a lifetime. This creates obvious headaches—additional household paperwork, unexpectedly large bills due to coverage unfamiliarity—and needless administrative waste. Almost 9% of U.S. healthcare spending goes toward insurance administration, roughly 3 times the average among rich OECD countries.
ESHI’s fickleness makes childbearing more difficult, too. Prospective parents are highly sensitive to child-related health care expenses, timing fertility in line with expectations of health coverage generosity. During the five-year RAND health insurance experiment, women assigned free medical care experienced 29% more births than those assigned to a high-deductible plan. That eye-popping headline needs a bit of unpacking, though. The majority of this impact is attributable to families speeding up their fertility timetable to take advantage of childbearing effectively being “on sale.” Such sensitivity suggests that ESHI remains a frequent source of discouragement. For many parents, what was originally intended as a temporary pause in child-bearing plans can often become permanent. Indeed, disruptions to ESHI coverage likely help explain why fertility declined more sharply in the wake of mass job loss in the United States than Europe during the Great Recession.
It doesn’t have to be this way. ESHI was not a conscious policy decision, but an attempt to work around war-era wage controls by providing workers with benefits instead.
Yet rather than address the problem, American policymakers have created a complicated patchwork of government programs—including Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, COBRA, the Veterans Health Administration, and the ACA exchanges. Still, about 8% of Americans remain uninsured.
Replacing our broken employer-centered system with one that puts families first should be the goal. One straightforward solution should appeal to conservative policymakers: require all insurers to provide a basic insurance plan that would provide families with protection against serious financial risk as well as basic preventative care against sickness.
Government would pay a substantial share of the premium for this basic plan, and copays and deductibles would be kept exceedingly modest, reflecting that even the poorest would be expected to purchase and use this basic medical coverage.
The bulk of financing would be contributed through folding in the various federal health care insurance programs, subsidies, and tax advantages, apart from the VA and Medicare. Children would be included in their parents’ plan at no direct cost, achieving cross-subsidization from the childless to families. Employers would be free to finance supplementary coverage for their employees, but would no longer receive any tax breaks for doing so.
The Netherlands provides an illustrative example of how this might work in practice. In 2006, a conservative coalition led by the Christian Democratic Appeal Party implemented a reform along these lines. The Health Insurance Act provided every citizen with a family-centered private insurance plan, abolishing their country’s Medicaid equivalent in the process.
Dutch insurers are now required to offer the “basic package,” a bundle of essential health services covering primary, specialty, emergency, and pharmaceutical care. Beyond this “basic package,” plans are highly customizable, offering the option to obtain coverage in areas such as contraception, physical therapy, dental care, and countless other areas. And 84% of Dutch purchase complementary coverage, illustrating the extent to which the “basic package” is genuinely basic.
As a result, the Netherland’s high-performing health care system is both aggressively pro-family and exemplifies a number of conservative ideals. Children are included in their parent’s plans at no additional cost. Families with religious objections to insurance may opt out and instead receive periodic contributions to a health savings account. It is entirely privately managed. Consumers have substantial choice, both in terms of plan details and providers.
The Dutch example provides just one workable model for family-centered health reform, but certainly not the only one. Placing family concerns front and center, conservatives and other family advocates should advance a health care agenda that overcomes the dysfunctional status quo. And they can do so without adding to the existing web of patchwork programs or succumbing to unworkable solutions.
Setting a Goal for Family Support
Gladden Pappin, University of Dallas
The current debate on child benefits, galvanized by Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act, has given conservatives the opportunity to change their approach to pro-family policy—away from old-style reformist tax credits and toward direct payments, away from remedial welfarist approaches and toward affirming the American family.
While much energy has been expended on Senator Romney’s proposal, it is time for conservatives to look beyond discrete proposals and to approach family policy as an orienting goal that can enable other political goals and as an investment in the nation’s long-term prosperity. Long-run economic growth is wholly determined by growth in the labor force as well as technologically induced productivity growth.
As a first step, conservatives should set a clearly defined goal for national spending on family support: one dollar in twenty, or 5% of GDP. Since federal programs tend to expand over time, providing a goal for spending will be essential for prioritizing and consolidating established programs. But it may also prove essential for policymaking, setting both a target benchmark and purpose around which to reorient and expand existing spending and to craft new programs.
In my 2019 proposal with Maria Molla under the name FamilyPay, we proposed a generous direct family benefit of approximately $500 per child per month across the board. We suggested that, as family size increases, more of the benefit be provided as “CarePoints”—a card tied to family- and home-related expenses.
Once a form of direct family payments is in place, the One Dollar in Twenty Plan could add the following programs:
- The Baby Loan. Married couples expecting their first child should be entitled to a $20,000 interest-free loan from the U.S. Treasury on goods and services tied to child-rearing and homemaking. A couple expecting their second and third children should be eligible for additional $10,000 loans. After the birth of the third child, the entirety of the loans should be written off.
- The American Dream Bank. Married couples with two minor children who are buying new or existing homes, and meet credit requirements, should be eligible for an interest-free loan up to a maximum amount of 40% of the conforming loan limit. The loans should be administered by a national family investment bank backed by the Federal Reserve. Such a program would help iron out the intergenerational inequalities in the housing market that currently prevent young people from forming families.
- A Fuller “FamilyPay.” In order to make robust family life a reality for more families, parents should receive double the amount of the Family Security Act’s benefit, but one half of the benefit should be an unconditional cash payment while the other half should be restricted to eligible home, family and educational expenses via a “CarePoints” system. By tying CarePoints expenditures to domestically manufactured products, the program will help to reorient American manufacturing around the family home. Products for which no domestic manufacturing exists could be imported or subsidized.
A version of the One Dollar in Twenty Plan is already being implemented in Hungary, which aims to spend one dollar in twenty on family support—and includes forgivable loans for expecting parents, home purchase assistance, and direct family payments. If the one-in-twenty amount seems out of reach in the United States, it shouldn’t. Per-capita GDP in the United States is four times that of Hungary.
If any government can support the family in a robust manner, it is ours.
Taxing Families Like Companies
Jon Schweppe, American Principles Project
If families are people, and corporations are people, it stands to reason that families should be allowed to incorporate and file their taxes accordingly.
The benefits to incorporating are fairly obvious: corporations are taxed on their net income, and they enjoy a lower tax rate. Families, on the other hand, pay taxes on their revenue. And while families enjoy a few miscellaneous deductions and credits, they largely miss out on the good stuff. Corporations get to deduct nearly all capital expenditures; families receive no direct tax benefit for feeding their kids, purchasing clothes, buying a minivan, filling that minivan with unleaded, homeschooling or other education expenses, fixing a furnace, upgrading technology, or even moving to a safer neighborhood. If a corporation can demonstrate a net loss on the year, even due to its own aggressive spending habits, it doesn’t pay taxes. If a family loses money, the tax code doesn’t care.
As a result, families pay a disproportionate share of federal tax receipts. In 2019, individuals paid just under 70 percent of all federal taxes, while corporations paid just 25 percent. Take payroll taxes out of the equation, and those numbers become even more lopsided: individuals paid nearly $1.6 trillion to the federal government while corporations paid about $226 billion.
This is not to suggest that corporations should be taxed on their revenue, or that we should dramatically increase corporate taxes. Lower taxes and reduced regulatory burdens can, at least in theory, encourage capital formation. So if Republicans are so eager to pass a $1.7 trillion, unfunded corporate tax cut on the belief that it would spur business investment, as they did in 2017, shouldn’t they be willing to consider a similar approach to other forms of capital formation—namely, human capital formation?
We are in the midst of a fertility crisis, which only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has already reached an all-time-low fertility rate of 1.71 births per woman, and Brookings estimates that there will be a “baby bust” in 2021 of at least 300,000 fewer American births. The long-term effects of such a decline in human capital would be far-reaching. Shrinking populations don’t often lend themselves to growing economies.
Financial pressures are one of the main, addressable sources of the crisis. As American Compass’s recent Home Building Survey showed, half of parenting-age adults want more children than they currently have. And for all but the most well-off, these parents cite the inability to afford more children as the primary reason for this deficit.
If we were to find a similar impediment to the formation or growth of American businesses, wouldn’t we do something about it? Wouldn’t we have done something already?
We could create new deductions or expand existing credits to attempt to level the playing field between corporations and families. Options include: boosting the Child Tax Credit, reworking the Earned Income Tax Credit, extending the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit beyond two dependents or above the current $6,000 cap, or even expanding the scope of 529 savings accounts to include all K-12 schooling options.
Or, we could go big and allow families access to the same tax treatment that Amazon and General Electric enjoy. Instead of a Child Tax Credit, let families write off their grocery bills. Instead of deductions for mortgage interest that only kick in if tax filers earn enough income to itemize, let families deduct all housing costs. Instead of an inadequate childcare deduction, let families deduct the entire expense. Why not? Families are corporations, my friend.
For decades, supply-side ideology has led Republicans to cut taxes and regulation on behalf of corporations. Now, as financial pressures constrain the supply of future Americans, we should embrace supply-side oikonomics and let families incorporate.
Making Young Men Marriageable
W. Bradford Wilcox & Peyton Roth, American Enterprise Institute
When it comes to the relations between the sexes in America, a lot has changed since the 1960s. But at least one thing has not: the vast majority of women still prefer to marry a man who is a decent breadwinner.
Unfortunately, a growing share of men without college degrees no longer meet this bar. With few “marriageable” men employed in the kinds of decent-paying occupations that make them attractive as potential husbands, marriage has slipped out of reach for far too many poor and working-class Americans.
This problem lies, at least in part, with the “college-for-all” framework that dominates all too many schools. Most young adults—especially young men—do not graduate from college. Only about one-third of Millennial men have a bachelor’s degree. Yet our attention and dollars are overwhelmingly devoted to the college track. Current federal and state funding for higher education totals about $150 billion. But only $1.9 billion in funding is devoted to vocational education in high schools and community colleges.
This relative dearth of public funding or support for Americans who aren’t college-bound reflects the basic failure of our educational institutions. Too many of our schools discount the potential of less academically minded children and fails to offer them the education they need to build a flourishing personal and professional life.
As a result, far too many high school students—especially young men—spend critical years of their development struggling in classes that bore or overwhelm them and fail to offer them a path to a stable career—much less a clear sense of vocation and direction. After high school, many of these young adults move in and out of dead-end jobs without accumulating the self-confidence and salary that would make them good candidates for marriage. Others drift out of the workforce entirely. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly seven million prime-age men were not looking for work.
But there is a solution. Schools across the country have begun to develop strong vocational alternatives to the four-year college pathway. These career and technical education (CTE) programs ground education in real-world skills and encompass everything from culinary education to advanced manufacturing. Research suggests that CTE programs boost high school graduation rates and test scores. But most importantly, they put young adults on a pathway toward a stable and decent-paying career and confer dignity upon young adults who might otherwise feel they have nothing to contribute.
Take, for example, Career Academies. Career Academics are specialized learning communities in high schools that offer students—especially young men who are struggling academically—rigorous, career-oriented courses in a close cohort of peers and teachers. They also offer on-the-job internships and work-based learning opportunities. Young men participating in these programs earn more than similar peers who do not.
But Career Academies and other CTE programs do more than offer young men a pathway into decent-paying, stable jobs and instill confidence that their interests and talents are worthy of cultivation. They make them marriageable: young men who attend a Career Academy are not only more likely to flourish in the workforce, but more likely to marry.
To better address the nation’s marriage divide, policymakers should devote at least one-third of federal and state education spending to CTE, internships, and apprenticeships. Meanwhile, superintendents, principals, and headmasters working in public and private schools should dramatically expand the number of high-quality vocational classes and programs available to high school students.
If we are dedicated to renewing the fortunes of marriage and family life in this nation for those without a college degree, we must do more to boost the fortunes of vocational education in America.