The Nation Supporting the Family
Conservatives of every ideological stripe agree: The key to a healthy, well-functioning society is strong families. Families are where children are born, raised, and formed into the adults they will become. The family is the institution that, at its best, teaches the values of hard work, independence, resilience, and responsibility, and when it breaks down, no number of government policies or social programs can take its place.
Many on the right correctly point to the multitude of cultural problems that make raising a family more difficult today. But parents are under economic pressures as well. Shifts in the economy’s demands and rewards have discouraged family formation and parenthood, a reality reflected in the nation’s sharply declining marriage and fertility rates. Our tax code and social safety net programs reward cohabitation rather than marriage, making relationships more precarious and leading to worse outcomes for children. And many families find that they need two incomes to make ends meet, even if they wish one of them could be at home while their children are young.
A conservative family policy agenda must recognize the burdens unique to parents and advance sensible reforms to make having and raising a child easier in today’s America. This agenda might encompass a range of policies, from spending more on social programs to eliminate marriage penalties, to spending less on provisions in the tax code that favor the use of center-based childcare, to eliminating environmental and regulatory burdens on the housing market that especially penalize young couples just starting out. But most fundamentally, a conservative approach to family economic security should recognize the simple truth that parents face specific costs that the childless do not.
As birth rates fall and parenthood becomes less common, families are bearing the financial burden of having and raising children on their own. A single, childless worker and a married one with three kids have the same earnings potential in the labor market, but the demands on their earnings are very different.
Meanwhile, the whole society has a stake in them taking on that responsibility. Children are, quite literally, the future—as citizens, taxpayers, workers, inventors, and parents themselves. Economists refer to this as a “positive externality.” Much of the net benefit accrues to the community as a whole, rather than the individuals bearing the cost.
Of course, a child is not an accounting exercise. But neither can the nation afford to remain blind to the economic pressures that families face and the economic and social costs of leaving them to fend for themselves. Declining birth rates constrain the national capacity to invest for the long-term and reduce the will to do so, produce a zero-sum approach to politics, and erode the nation’s confidence.
The most straightforward way of helping parents with the specific burden associated with having children is by putting more money in their pocket. At the same time, policymakers must avoid offering government benefits indiscriminately, in ways that downplay the importance of a stable, two-parent home or that repeat the Great Society’s mistake of equating a government check with a paycheck.
American Compass proposed one such plan in 2021: the Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc). It would offer a monthly payment to parents, starting prior to birth, with a higher value for married parents to encourage stable households. By structuring the program as a form of social insurance, contingent on families also working to support themselves, the design encourages a clear distinction between payments that support families with a worker present as opposed to those that seek to reduce poverty through handouts.
At present, the main mechanism for providing financial support to families is the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which began as an outgrowth of the Contract with America and was passed by a Republican Congress in 1997. The original CTC reduced a family’s federal taxes owed by $1,000 per child. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) expanded the CTC, doubling its per-child value to $2,000 and increasing the amount that low-income households (who do not pay enough in federal taxes to receive much benefit from a credit reducing those taxes) could receive.
The TCJA expansion is due to expire in 2025 unless Congress acts. Conservatives should prioritize improving the CTC, increasing the amount further (and permanently) and ensuring that low-income families are eligible for the full value. An estimated one-third of children live in households with earnings too low to receive the full $2,000 per-child credit. As the credit’s value increases, fewer and fewer families have sufficient income and tax liability to take full advantage of the benefit.
Importantly, making the credit available to all working families is very different from paying it unconditionally. Proposals like the Fisc and the Family Security Act proposed last year by Senators Richard Burr, Steve Daines, and Mitt Romney aim to deliver the full value even to a family with one parent working part-time at the minimum wage. But some connection to the labor force remains vital; families with no income of their own would be ineligible. By contrast, President Biden’s pandemic-era CTC expansion, which offered money unconditionally to all families, was an inadequate vehicle for family policy, partly for its lack of connection to work, and also for its failure to replace the tangle of tax credits and programs for low-income households with a simpler cash payment. Reforming the CTC in conjunction with other tax provisions not only keeps the price tag reasonable, but also makes the tax code simpler and more legible for parents.
A better child benefit wouldn’t solve all of the problems facing American families. Indeed, it might not lead directly to a significant uptick in the birth rate at all. But it would give families much needed breathing room, particularly around the birth of a new child. For those most concerned about “the culture” it would help to replace stories of struggling families with stories of flourishing ones. And, perhaps most importantly, it would send a clear and unmistakable message that the nation sees directly supporting strong families as a key function of government. Many conservatives proudly tout their identity as being of the “party of parents” or standing for “family values.” A signature policy aimed at helping parents afford the cost of raising children would substantiate that rhetoric and deliver on it for working- and middle-class families.