America has officially entered the post-Roe era. More and more states are taking action to protect unborn human life, and elected leaders are contemplating measures to codify the right to life in law. That is reason to celebrate. It is also reason to reengage a debate that has been brewing among conservatives for many years, and is now taking center stage—whether federal policy should proactively support American families, particularly low-income ones. Most notably, three Republican senators have recently introduced a plan for a monthly cash benefit for working families, with the support of pro-life advocacy groups and even enthusiasm from legacy think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute.
Conservatives have always appreciated the family as the cornerstone of a healthy society, but the concept of “family policy” has conventionally been associated with the Left. That is beginning to change. Worrying long-term trends—from declining birthrates and delayed marriage to stagnant wages for many and concerns about a purported “two-income trap”—have spurred many conservatives to reexamine how economic forces shape family formation. Some, like the two of us, have concluded that an approach to such issues that relies exclusively on tax cuts is inadequate at best, and at worst undermines American families’ ability to form, be fruitful, and flourish in the face of new cultural and economic pressures.
As conservatives tackle family policy, however, we must avoid two extremes. On the one hand, a certain strain of philosophical conservatism, in the name of epistemological humility, rebuts any attempt to use government to improve parents’ lives. Proponents of this laissez-faire mentality may lament the challenges facing the American family, but they worry that government is powerless to redress them and likely to exacerbate them. On the other hand, a burgeoning, more populist strain perceives the crisis facing the American family as warranting virtually any policy measure to rescue it. Its champions assume that righteous action will outweigh unintended consequences, that trillions can be spent on families without negative repercussions down the road.