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Conservatives Need a Pro-Family Agenda Beyond Tax Credits

A clear definition of ‘family’ offers space for GOP creativity on policy.

For decades, discussions of “family policy” in the U.S. have been associated with the broader liberal agenda, from raising the minimum wage to universal childcare and paid leave mandates. The default conservative response has been to resort to the usual talking points: too expensive, too heavy-handed, too much of a threat to liberty.

But as Republicans search for a political identity after four years of the Trump administration, the old rhetoric rings hollow. Focusing on boosting GDP growth and letting the market take care of the rest is no longer enough. Conservatives need to develop an agenda around the family as a social and economic unit, not just to combat the left’s preference for state action, but as a proactive vision for what advancing the common good could look like.

While the laissez-faire part of the conservative coalition may bristle at something as seemingly natural and essential as the family being addressed by the heavy-handed tools of public policy, record-low birth rates and falling rates of marriage mean that social conservatives must boldly go where neoliberals fear to tread. For there is no such thing as a pristine state of nature when it comes to fiscal or economic policy and family life. Certain behaviors can be incentivized, or not, as with marriage penalties in the earned income tax credit. Certain actions can be subsidized, or not, such as putting a child in formal childcare. Even the act of having a child can be promoted, or discouraged, through how dependents are treated in the tax code or in welfare programs.

Conservative reformers have tried to nudge the party in a meaningfully pro-family direction before. During George W. Bush’s second term, Yuval Levin noted “The greatest threat to the interests of families and free markets today is in fact the tension between them.” Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam famously attempted to develop a “Sam’s Club Republicanism.” And more recently, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru has encouraged Republicans to think about a “parents’ party,” instead of a “workers’ party.”

All of these pushes faced strong political headwinds from self-proclaimed conservative gatekeepers at the time. But the post-Trump landscape is opening up new possibilities for ideas once thought heterodox. The recent introduction of Senator Mitt Romney’s “Family Security Act”—which would provide a universal child allowance for all families, regardless of income—was an exciting first step towards an authentically pro-family politics. If it is adopted, it would be the most constructive policy step for families in decades. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the loud, populist voices deeming the GOP a newfound “party of the working class” will put their money where their mouth is.

Battles over the family have tended to be fought on cultural grounds, not economic ones. But the two are clearly linked. Cultural libertarianism supplements economic neoliberalism when it treats all unchosen obligations as suspect, and undermines traditional institutions in the name of efficiency. 

A libertarian-infused approach gives the individual a place of primacy, promoting unencumbered liberty. Identity politics, ascendant on the left, prefers to evaluate the individual as part of his or her racial or ethnic group. Conservatives, in turn, tend to agree with the great sociologist Robert Nisbet that “family, not the individual, is the real molecule of society, the key link of the social chain of being.” This insight should guide a distinctively and authentically conservative approach to social, fiscal, and economic policy.

The unfettered individual, abstracted from the demands of being a parent, spouse, or child, is not just an ideal consumer; he or she is perfectly suited for a culture that prioritizes self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Family life, according to this worldview, is just one path among many. Why bother, progressives ask, looking at policymaking through the lens of a creaky institution that is just one path of many towards adult fulfillment? 

This logic is taken to its natural conclusion by activists seeking legal recognition for “chosen families,” which David Brooks in The Atlantic  called a “chance to thicken and broaden family relationships.” But this stretches the definition of “family” beyond anything useful. As I explore in a new essay for American Compass, family policy must serve a definite purpose, or it turns into an expensive commitment to nothing in particular. The purpose of family policy must be to strengthen the fundamental unit of social life, the locus of childbearing and rearing, not simply to help adults find meaning and support amid difficult patches. 

History provides a ready-made example of what happens when policymakers allow fuzzy definitions of family to drive policymaking. In the 1970s, when the Republican stance on the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe vs. Wade was still unsettled, the Carter campaign sought to woo conservative voters by promising to hold a “White House Conference on the American Family” after he won. Even before he could be sworn in, however, his transition team recommended the title be changed to the “White House Conference on Families,” the better to stress a “neutral model” of family policy. The intentional lack of specificity in the body’s aim led to a chaotic process, including delegate walk-outs, political mobilization, contentious sessions, and a wet-noodle report. 

“If Carter began with an implicit theory of the nuclear family as the norm,” longtime Brookings Institution fellow Gilbert Steiner wrote in the report’s aftermath, “he undermined it by shifting to an acceptance of the diversity and pluralism of families.” The resulting slate of policy recommendations, mostly inoffensive pablum such as more funding to prevent drug abuse, reducing marriage penalties, and greater support for handicapped persons, convinced no one of the left’s willingness to use public policy to support the family, and left the field empty for conservatives to claim. 

Unfortunately, the right steered too far in the opposite direction, adopting a “Family Protection Act” that largely abandoned pocketbook issues for a full slate of culture war issues, from school prayer to abortion restrictions to private school tax credits. And after relying on Religious Right voters to recapture the White House, the Reagan administration thanked them for their support and told them to wait their turn—indefinitely, as it turned out. “Intent on passing Reagan’s economic and defense program, White House officials decided to put the social issues aside,” Frances FitzGerald summarized. “They wouldn’t touch the Family Protection Act.” Ever since, social conservatives have largely been left without a shield against cultural forces that would undermine the family explicitly, or economic ones that would do the same in a more subtle way. 

By stressing the irreplaceable nature of family life, along with its affective, economic, and procreative dimensions, conservatives can find a reason to oppose attempts to redefine the family beyond blood and kinship, and to pivot on economic policy to more substantively support families across the income distribution. Social conservatives first encroached on limited government-types’ turf with the initial introduction of the child tax credit in 1997, but in general have been largely absent from economic issues. 

But an agenda that puts families first must push beyond the tax code, to address a whole series of policy failures, including a health care system that frequently leaves new parents in the lurch, housing policy that incentivizes detached single-family residences, and an education system that too often limits parents’ choices. Sometimes this will mean spending more, like building intentional spaces for children in public works projects. At times, it will mean spending less, like reforming a higher education system that too often has young adults take on needless student loan debt. At all times, it will mean thinking differently, applying a lens to policy analysis that does not reduce things to the level of the unencumbered individual or the abstraction of the racial or ethnic group. 

The child tax credit is great. A universal child allowance would be even better. But a family policy agenda must be more than either of these. It must be aimed at meaningfully strengthening the family in its essentiality and irreplaceability. Orienting our decision-making around children and their parents should be the driving force behind decisions on housing, transportation, health care, education, elder care—every aspect of public policy, that is, that interacts with every part of daily life in our roles as parent, child, or spouse.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a former Sr. Policy Advisor for Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, a contributing editor at American Compass, and a policy fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. 

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