Whether Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) intended to throw down a gauntlet when she introduced her Family Bill of Rights recently is sort of beside the point. As a conservative who cares about family policy and who was disappointed by Sen. Gillibrand’s plan, I believe there is a crucial conversation to be had about families and the future success of our nation, and conservatives should help shape it.
Toward that end, I asked a few Republican senators for their thoughts about what policies might be included in a conservative take on supporting and strengthening American families. I heard back from two.
In response, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) emailed,
I so often hear from Iowa parents who struggle to balance family and work; and, I hear from our small business owners who just simply can’t afford to provide this option. We don’t need to create some massive government mandate. We need a conservative, family focused, budget-neutral approach to paid leave that allows parents the flexibility to spend time with their newborn or adopted child in those precious first few weeks—that’s what my proposal, the CRADLE Act, does.
Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) also shared his thoughts with me via email. He wrote, “Sen. Gillibrand is absolutely right about one thing: ‘America can’t succeed unless families do.’ That said, her Family Bill of Rights would only lead to fewer families with less flexible support from the federal government.”
Sen. Lee told me that a better family policy would maximize the number of adoption matches, expand the child tax credit to enable families to buy what they think best, adapt Social Security to be available when parents need it, and give parents more control over education spending.
He added, “From higher education to housing, the federal government is actively driving up the cost of many basic needs, making it harder for families to start, grow, and thrive. We need to fix these policies before we raise taxes and spend more on failed government programs.”
These are worthy points for consideration, to which I’d like to add six additional policy ideas:
Support Part-Time Employment. Sen. Gillibrand starts from the assumption that mothers want to work full time, but “among married mothers with children ages 0 to 3 at home, only 17% prefer to work full time, and 34% consider staying at home as their ideal situation.” So, a conservative pro-family plan should consider how to best support mothers (or fathers) who want to work part-time, possibly from home, or completely drop out of the workforce for a time to focus on raising children. What changes to the tax code could make part-time or self-employment more feasible? Start by looking at filing requirements, payroll taxes, and marginal tax rates for parents who work part-time. Supplementing the primary breadwinner’s income shouldn’t be penalized by the tax code.
Involve Fathers. In her plan, Gillibrand focused primarily on women, but men need to be more fully included in discussions about families. Raising children without involved fathers can not only create financial hardship and increase inequality, but also put children at risk for negative social and behavioral outcomes. Conservatives should consider how to best help fragile families, starting by supporting men who’d like to be more engaged with their own families.
Invest in Fatherhood Training. We should draw on experiments from the laboratory of states and the work of foundations and non-profits. For example, men who were raised without fathers may want to be active, involved fathers but not know how to do so. There are community-level fatherhood training programs that address this gap. Find the most successful programs that can be replicated and consider whether more such programs can be funded by philanthropic efforts or some combination of state and federal grants.
Support Targeted Workforce Training. College isn't for everybody, but the dignity of honest work is. Rather than forcing more young people to take on massive debt for unnecessary college degrees, elected officials should work with local business leaders to identify areas for potential job growth and encourage those uninterested in college to consider apprenticeships as electricians, plumbers, or in other well-paid, in-demand fields. Helping young men learn a trade, as well as soft skills, like punctuality and being part of a team, can help men succeed at work, while also contributing to their sense of self-worth and their family’s financial future.
Strengthen, Don’t Undermine Marriage. Government social safety net programs frequently undermine families. If women apply as single parents, they can take advantage of more generous benefits than if they apply as half of a married couple. Eligibility rules should be reviewed, so that marriage is not undermined by the states or the federal government, which are ostensibly trying to help their own citizens.
Make Shared Parenting Possible. Family courts, even within the same state, can have widely varying outcomes when assigning custody for children of divorce. Barring extreme circumstances, studies show that children, including young children, have better behavioral and emotional outcomes when they’re able to live with and maintain relationships with both mom and dad. State jurists should be encouraged to review the current literature on shared parenting after divorce.
Families are the foundation of our society, but many are hurting. It’s time for conservatives to open up the debate about how to we can better help all parents and children.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about culture, religion, and issues affecting families. She shares all of her writing on her website.