The conversation about family policy on the right is growing, and signals an important shift in priority.
The bipartisan push for federally-supported paid family leave continues, and pro-life conservatives want to lead the way. On Monday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell received a coalition letter signed by a number of religious and pro-life leaders, including the original workers-party Republican Rick Santorum in his role as chair of Patriot Voices, calling this Congress to prioritize paid family leave. As the letter reminds its recipients, while 64 percent of households with children have both parents working and 25 percent of households are headed by a single parent, just 19 percent of workers—only 9 percent of “low wage” workers—have access to parental leave. That’s part of what makes children in America today a luxury good and a financial burden, rather than, as the psalmist calls them, a heritage and reward.
The presence of representatives from organizations such as the American Principles Project and Students for Life among the letter’s signatories make clear that, whether through Catholic social teaching or personal reflection, a growing number of conservatives see their commitment to the sanctity of the life of the unborn as obligating a new effort to make the U.S.. hospitable to new life. Paid family leave is one way to do this, as it seeks to address both a developmental and financial-material need. Babies need time to bond with their parents, and parents need time to bond with their children, and too-few can afford that time. The letter writers observe that nearly 25 percent of all American mothers go back to work within 10 to 14 days of giving birth, and fathers go back even sooner. As they say, “Families deserve better options, regardless of the parents’ age or income.”
This latest outreach joins what is rapidly becoming a trend in conservative political circles, as policy wonks and elected officials catch up with the voters to realize that paid family leave is popular. By one estimate 65 percent of voters who identify as conservative support the idea, and 83 percent of liberals. If there’s any issue there’s a chance to reach across the aisle on, or for the Republican establishment to update its priors on, it’s this. And they should. It’s past time for conservatives to leave behind the pretense that the basic building block of political order is an individual, especially an individual economic labor unit. We are not singular persons, sprung from the earth or manufactured in hospitals, but someone’s children. We can and should think of politics and government as an alliance of parents for, in the words of the U.S. Constitution, securing the blessings of liberty for their posterity.
That family focus is a recollection—for is indeed a memory of an older account of political life—having its moment, especially in response to various child allowance and tax credit proposals. Over at American Compass late last month, Michael Lind wrote that “to be pro-worker is not to help workers as isolated individuals, but to help workers as members of families that are treated as the basic units of public policy.” He goes on to detail the degree to which our current policy paradigm hinders working-class Americans’ ability to marry and have children, that is, to form and flourish in that most basic political unit, the family. We at The American Conservative have joined in this conversation as well. Joseph Paul Barnas concluded in a recent essay that “Conservatives must recognize that a social order in which parents are compelled by financial constraints to outsource their familial roles is not a healthy one, because prosperity extends well beyond the restrictive frame of economic wellbeing.” And Patrick T. Brown suggested that “Orienting our decision-making around children and their parents should be the driving force behind decisions on…every aspect of public policy.”
That federal support for American families is popular does not mean it is past debate, of course. Just this week, TAC senior editor Matt Purple waded into the family policy pool, too, making the prudent point that social engineering efforts rarely work. When it comes to something as fundamental as the family or complicated as childbirth, throwing money at problems often barely moves the needle or has unexpected side effects. There are a host of cultural and technological reasons for below-replacement birth rates and declining marriages, in addition to financial constraints. It’s a point well made and should be well taken. But while Purple is still a young man, also this week, Christopher Buskirk argued in the New York Times that reluctance around money in family policy seems to map onto a generational divide. Older conservatives preserve a suspicion of government intervention and potentially reckless spending, while younger people have felt the effects of stagnant real wages and feel that “the family is a haven in a heartless world and we should support anything that makes it easier for families to thrive.” To Purple’s point, his fellow Millennial conservatives, myself included, would say: Sure, we don’t know that it will work, but it doesn’t have to be approached as social engineering and is worth a try. The question is whether Boomers will stop us.
The hesitancy Buskirk observes among older conservatives to financially support family formation highlights the diminished role of grandparents in contemporary American life. Boomers may not want to use their tax dollars for other people’s children because as a collective they’re not particularly interested in their money going to their own. Some ethnic minority communities still notably operate on multigenerational lines, even after achieving financial wealth, with at least Grandma moving in to help with the newborn. But in a world where success seems to require moving away from home and becoming an anonymous face in the urban crowd, active grandparents appear to be an increasingly low priority for the country. That’s tragically self-defeating, for what else is all this money for if not family? And when I think of the delight my own parents take in helping my sister raise my nieces, I have to ask, what might this country be like if more people loved being grandparents as much as they do, and wanted that same delight to be possible for all Americans?