Public policy can be both pro-market and pro-family, as the House of Representatives demonstrated on Wednesday. Republican Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith’s (R-Mo.) tax package, which included important improvements to the Child Tax Credit (CTC), passed by a margin of 357 to 70 with overwhelming support in both parties and even members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus on board. The win solidified an important truth: strengthening support for working families is not just a popular priority, but a conservative one.
The CTC, a per-child tax credit for working families, was originally a Republican idea, after all—part of the 1994 Contract with America. The formation and stability of families has always been an object of conservative policymaking. When policies harm the family, conservatives have strenuously worked to reform or repeal them. When policies promote marriage and the flourishing of children in strong homes, conservatives have supported and enacted them.
The quintessential example of preventing harm was the 1996 welfare reform, a signal achievement of modern American conservatism. Before welfare reform, U.S. government assistance to the very poor kept them very poor. Unconditional cash payments supported millions of able-bodied parents outside of the workforce, but the payments were withdrawn if the parents went to work. Steep penalties for getting married gave parents both the message and the incentive to remain unwed. Conservatives flipped this script by requiring work, channeling support toward helping people find work, and using programs like the CTC and the Earned Income Tax Credit to get more resources to families that were working to support themselves.
Today the family faces new challenges. Indeed, the distance from today back to welfare reform is nearly as far as from welfare reform back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society launch. The main problems today are not teen pregnancy, the explosion of unwed motherhood, and parents disconnected from the workforce, but rather the failure of families to form at all and the difficulty of achieving middle-class security on the typical paycheck.