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Why Not Pay Women to Stay Home, Raise Children?

Ronald Reagan once said [1], “Man does not live by bread alone. We really almost diminish all the things we are when we limit the debate to money and how it is distributed in our country. We lose a sense of the mystery in men’s souls and the mystery of life.”

Was he giving a guest sermon at a church? No. He was speaking to poor students in a languishing Texas town, and the subject of his speech was, nominally, his reelection campaign and his economic recovery. The president’s remarks were in response to those who noticed that the economic recovery had not yet reached their own communities.

Reagan’s transmogrification of a technocratic policy question into a moral indictment of his policy’s own victims is sadly typical of a certain strain of social conservatism. A great deal of their rhetoric about society’s ills—divorce, declining birth rates, rising age of marriage—amounts to a sort of reality-defying mysticism. If only people could summon real moral courage and spiritual strength. If only we could repeal and replace the Enlightenment. [2] If only, if only…

This kind of moral philosophizing is not just spectacularly ineffectual—if the sporadic political success of social conservatism in the last 50 years is any guide—it is also deeply un-conservative. Conservatism at its heart is about seeing the world as it actually exists, and working within those confines. We do not have to like reality, but unlike progressives, we do not see it as clay to be shaped in our image. We do not pretend that it is possible to transcend our messy, imperfect humanity. The conservative creed in essence: Human nature is a chronic condition.

To be sure, there are conservatives, such as the “Reformicons,” [3] social conservatives who nonetheless embrace wonky Washington domestic policy ideas for Republican portfolios. But we’re talking about the kind of conservatives who think those conservatives are spooky social engineers. These are the social conservatives, often of a religious disposition, who display a skepticism of public policy, or even implicitly believe that the very concept of public policy is illegitimate. Though perhaps underrepresented in Washington, such conservatives make up a large swath of the popular conservative movement outside the Beltway.

In reality, the most conservative answer to social decay is to create incentives for the kind of society we would like to see. Virtue is not meaningless, but man, we might say, does not live on virtue alone. Fifty years of bashing feminism and glorifying motherhood has not made for more stay-at-home mothers, but a useful childcare subsidy or stipend to cover exorbitant costs might. The empirical research on this, as with many wonky policies, is mixed, but somewhat supportive. Denunciations of the “liberal city” [4] do nothing to lower the cost of having kids and raising a family in a modern American metropolis; tax incentives might. For that matter, the various tax benefits for marriage have been stripped away over time [5], and the result has not been more pure and solid marriages, but fewer and more broken ones.

The usual conservative objections—that such policies have unintended consequences; that they empower suspect, amoral bureaucrats; that they are “social engineering” that encourages dependency; that taxation and redistribution is theft, or worse, socialism; that the government should not tip the scales in favor of one behavior over another—pale in comparison to the enormity of our socio-economic problems today. If the family really is the bedrock of society, how can we not do everything possible to promote its growth and stave off its dissolution? Swearing off incentives and human psychology and seeking transformation of society by the force of moral and spiritual convictions is many things, but it is absolutely not conservative.

Consider, to return back to the “social engineering” objection, the case of the American suburbs. Quite a few of the conservatives who abhor Cass Sunstein-style policymaking [6] as some kind of proto-Communism seem to think there is something new and ominous about it. But, if they live in a suburban house, they are living out a social engineering experiment every day. The GI Bill, the government subsidization of home mortgages, the building of roads and infrastructure further and further outside the cities, were all results of deliberate policy in the postwar era. Without a concerted effort by government to build the American middle class in the 1950s, there would be no suburbs, no strip malls, no sprawl, or at a minimum, they would not have become our country’s defining landscape. The very fabric of American life would be drastically different.

Everyone who lives in a detached house on a paved street with city water is the victim, or beneficiary, of social engineering. These particular policies may have been for good or ill [7], but they happened, and we aren’t living under Stalinism. Compared to carpeting the nation with Levittowns in the 1950’s, any reasonable incentives for pro-family behavior today would be  fairly benign. In fact, they are a no-brainer.

Conservatives should put their money where their mouths are—even if it’s taxpayer money.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro [8].

63 Comments (Open | Close)

63 Comments To "Why Not Pay Women to Stay Home, Raise Children?"

#1 Comment By Argon On August 25, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

“As long as the taxpayer is not expected to pay then I’m all for it. Otherwise this will become just another entitlement program like welfare, social security, Obamacare, etc.”

Right. Public schools, roads, police, fire and even wars I’m not personally involved in… All those things should be entirely paid for by people who use them!

#2 Comment By Concerned Citizen On August 25, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

@ Philip Ashton says:
August 24, 2017 at 10:08 am

“While the exact numbers could be debated, just say we raise the dependent exemption from the current level of appx $4,000 to somewhere closer to $6,000. At the same time, phase out the personal and spousal exemptions starting at age 25 for anybody NOT classified as married filing jointly or separately.”


Philip, you fail to take into account that not everyone is fortunate to have found their lifetime mate by the age of 25. It isn’t always a “choice” not to be married within a culturally approved time frame. If personal exemptions were to be removed as you suggest, the pay of the lower-income unmarried would, in effect, be docked, maybe even to the point of being unable to provide for adequate food and shelter for themselves. Have a heart, would you?

#3 Comment By Egypt Steve On August 25, 2017 @ 10:30 pm

“Right. Public schools, roads, police, fire and even wars I’m not personally involved in… All those things should be entirely paid for by people who use them!”

I wish I could be sure whether this is meant seriously, or is a parody of a “pure” solipsistic libertarianism.

#4 Comment By Bryan Hemming On August 26, 2017 @ 7:58 am

I don’t suppose anyone here thinks that some fathers could be paid to stay at home, when and where conditions suit? Thought not. I’ll get my coat.

#5 Comment By KJC On August 27, 2017 @ 1:11 am

To prevent any one man from falling into the cycle of semi-permanent destitution for the terrible sin of impregnating a woman who may not wish to remain with that same man for the next 18 years, spread the cost among all tax payers in the form of a stipend to all mothers under Social Security. (I’m less sympathetic when men choose to leave.) This would simply ratify the new norm of single motherhood that has already taken shape in our society.

I would further note that it’s not the gays and the liberals that are destroying traditional families and marriage. It’s the family courts and their draconian impositions of child support and alimony that offer incentives to take advantage of the system on one side while often inflicting financial ruin on the other side. The message to working class men is clear: there are powerful deterrents to getting married and having kids, and with good representation, women can gain powerful rewards for getting divorced and winning custody.

Of course this is mainly an issue that affects working men. It doesn’t really impact white male elites, particularly politicians, who appear to consider women the more important constituency anyway. So working men turn to extremist, misogynistic candidates because no one else can be bothered to make even a moderate appeal or two to the actual problems facing working class men.

In the mean time, I’ve made the calculation that kids and marriage are too much risk. No traditional marriage for this guy, and it has nothing to do with Hollywood elites eroding my sense of traditional values. Abolish child support and replace it with a universal stipend for all mothers and I’d reconsider.

#6 Comment By Agonistes On August 27, 2017 @ 2:52 am

A few points:

1. The reason for skyrocketing housing/living costs is not working women, but crime. Families who want to raise their children safely in large urban areas seek gated communities and private schools.

2. If women stayed home, they would probably have more children. Whatever salary increases would be gained by fewer workers in the first generation would be reversed when the baby boom of the second generation came of age, and flooded the workforce once again.

#7 Comment By DavidE On August 27, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

Wouldn’t that cause the .01% to pay more in taxes? Do you really think Republicans would pass such a bill?

#8 Comment By Chris Travers On August 27, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

I wanted to talk about the charge of social engineering because it seems to me the state of social engineering is more or less like the state of software engineering: poorly thought out, poorly executed, and then people wonder about the instability that results. Yes I am also a software engineer and my study of political philosophy has changed my software engineering approaches. And I think this has some lessons for the other direction too.

The primary mistake people make when they go out and do software engineering is they think big. They focus on building systems that are supposed to work but the problem is these are so complicated that if you don’t get he little pieces demonstrably right you never get there. This has lead me to conclude that subsidiarity is a software design principle equally applicable to components and systems as it is to the teams that build them.

If you get the small components right, then it becomes easy to put them together in flexible ways that meet changing needs in the future. But if you focus on the big picture only, then you end up with a system which is hard to maintain, where little changes break big things (often somewhere completely different) and the like. So I have learned to focus on the small and let the big take care of itself.

What drives the big picture approach is the worship of innovation and this is a big reason why I see innovation as a dirty word (and I am not alone — Harry Spencer once said “Those who do not understand UNIX are destined to reinvent it badly” and I often say the same about history.

Social engineering is important because, at the end of the day, someone is going to do it and the question is who will do it to what end and how. If we decline to do so, corporations will do it. But it should be a focus on the small, not on the large and it should be the work of the gardener not the work of the policeman.

But this means we have to ask the questions:

What is the function of the family?
How do we best support it?
How do we (at the state level) support families in coming together to form communities? How do we support communities in solving their own problems?
At the federal level, how do we support the states in solving their own problems?

That’s social engineering too, but it is in my view social engineering done right.

I am not 100% sold on the idea, hence, that this should be a national policy. I am not sure whether national policies should address the family other than in the most general terms. But I do think that if we focus on the smaller pieces and empowering these, that we can get there.

#9 Comment By brians On August 27, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

Why not pay women to stay married rather than paying them to divorce?

#10 Comment By Dustin Arand On August 28, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

Why not pay _parents_ to stay home with children? More and more, women are making up the bulk of graduating classes of lawyers and doctors. My own wife is a lawyer and I’m a stay at home dad. By all means promote the family, but don’t insist on traditional gender roles (where “traditional” is defined with reference to a specific historical period” btw). Human nature may not be infinitely malleable, but it is what it is thanks to evolution. To invoke a process of change to defend stasis is a contradiction.

#11 Comment By fosforos On August 29, 2017 @ 11:32 am

If your conservatism is also libertarian, (or, perhaps, Marxist as well) the way to go is the universal basic income. If every couple is automatically provided with enough purchasing power to provide decent basic living conditions (and with adequate age-specific child allowances) they will overwhelmingly choose for one of them to raise the children and the other to work, for as much as needed to live as much more comfortably as they want. All you want from the government then are the policies (especially antitrust and flat taxation) to keep free markets free and functional.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On August 30, 2017 @ 9:52 am

How is this solution conservative? I’m puzzled.
I guess I’m old school but my idea of traditional conservatism is that the family & church are first responsible for taking care of each other. Govt. is a safety net, not a provider.

#13 Comment By Mia On September 10, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

Two questions to answer is 1) Who pays for this and 2) Are we trying to make our workforce more productive, or are we trying to use social engineering to make men the primary breadwinner and women the primary caregivers? In a question of who pays– I don’t see dual earner families supporting a tax policy where one parent is paid to stay home. Also, how is this going to be paid for? A tax credit? A weekly rate? And how do we prevent people from committing fraud?
The second question, is why are we making the assumption that mothers will want to stay home? Given that retirement is based on actual earnings, how would this be constructed without the non-working spouse being dependent on the working spouses’ income? Is our end goal to make society more productive, and in doing so, are we making gender-based assumptions? For instance, are we saying men are more productive at work and women are more productive at home? What research do we have that supports this? What if the woman has the better-paying job and the man decides to be the stay at home dad ( as is the case with my sister and brother-in-law)? Is this accounted for. If the goal is to get more women to stay home, for the fact of them being woman, I’d say that is dead in the water.