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  • What was once a powerful movement has been relegated to a junior partner in the coalition again. This will prove disastrous for American families if left unchanged.  Tweet This
  • A suggested list of five pro-family policies that social conservatives should seriously consider when putting together a new agenda. Tweet This

Is there a place for the pro-family movement in contemporary politics?

Beginning in the 1980s, the movement made great inroads in American politics as the public became increasingly concerned with family breakdown and destructive societal pressures. The formation of the White House Working Group on the Family, chaired by Gary Bauer, and the subsequent publication of a major report on the family suggested that the pro-family movement had found a welcoming home in the Republican coalition. 

The limits of this influence were soon tested. Advocates saw mixed success when it came time for translating the report’s recommendations into policy. They were, for example, able to push Republicans into prioritizing proposals to increase the dependent exemption and reduce marriage penalties in the tax code. The pro-business wing of the GOP reluctantly supported these measures as part of a broader push for comprehensive tax reform. The ability of pro-family and pro-business members of the coalition to make common cause on tax reform concealed tensions between the two groups. Those tensions would eventually come to the fore as the pro-family movement pushed for more power.

In the wake of Pat Robertson’s failed run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, it looked as if the movement was destined to be a perennial junior partner in this coalition. The pro-family movement’s ability to mobilize its base, it would seem, was no match for the business community’s ability to raise money for candidates. It would take another four years, with the populist campaign of Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential election, before some members of the pro-family movement learned an important lesson on the necessity of mobilizing voters beyond their base.

In an influential essay, Ralph Reed identified the pro-family movement’s problem as their inability to cast a wider net with voters. The obstacles were twofold. First, the emphasis on family values left them with a narrow agenda focused on social issues. Second, they built their movement around charismatic personalities heavy on rhetoric and light on policy prescriptions. This limited their political appeal. The public did care about social issues but it was secondary to most voters outside of the pro-family movement. According to Reed, “their primary interest is not to legislate against the sins of others, but to protect the health, welfare, and financial security of their own families.”

Reed’s solution was to craft a broader agenda by expanding the scope of what had traditionally been considered pro-family issues. The movement, he wrote, “must speak to the concerns of average voters in the areas of taxes, crime, government waste, health care, and financial security.” Movement leaders took this call seriously. Many of their proposals made their way into the Republicans’ famous Contract with America

The pro-family movement saw the benefits of this new strategy come to fruition when Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Some of the most successful policies of this era were populist measures supported by the pro-family movement as part of this broader agenda—a child tax credit to help struggling families with the cost of raising children, an adoption tax credit to help encourage alternatives to abortion, a local law enforcement block grant to make communities safer, and welfare reform to discourage family dissolution. The pro-business wing of the coalition, which would not have hesitated to drop the child tax credit altogether if it got them a larger capital gains tax cut, nevertheless went along in supporting them because of their popularity. 

Fast forward two decades. The substance of what eventually became the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 suggests that many family advocates have forgotten these lessons. Despite initial support for expanding the child tax credit from the pro-family movement, a proposed amendment from Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee to direct more of the tax credit’s benefits to working-class families ultimately failed. As I wrote at the time, the reason was that pro-family groups failed to mobilize in the face of the usual opposition from business groups. What was once a powerful movement has been relegated to a junior partner in the coalition again. This will prove disastrous for American families if left unchanged. 

Crucially, TCJA revealed what many social conservatives had already known—that business groups would be happy to sell out American families if it meant a larger corporate tax cut for themselves. And members of Congress, more concerned with financing their campaigns than serving the public who cast votes for them, would quietly oblige donors while simultaneously paying lip service to families and leaving them empty-handed.

Echoing Reed’s call to action from over 25 years ago, author J.D. Vance recently urged his audience at The American Conservative annual gala to recognize the problem that arises when policymakers “focus on the commercial interests who donate to Republican campaigns and not enough on the people who actually work and vote for Republican campaigns.” Whether or not he realized it, Vance’s call for a “pro-worker, pro-family” agenda tapped into a tried and true strategy for political success. Without going into detail, he pushed the audience to think hard about how to translate family values into “real actionable public policy.”

To kick things off, I have put together a suggested list of five pro-family policies that social conservatives should seriously consider when putting together a new agenda.

  1. Invest in Vocational Education. Stable, well-paying jobs undergird stable families. While we see a college education as a path to these sorts of jobs, it is a mistake to see it as the only path. Evidence suggests that vocational training and apprenticeships offer young people viable career paths and that we are underinvesting relative to other countries. Building this infrastructure would go a long way in recognizing the dignity of blue-collar work. 
  2. Expand Wage SubsidiesLow wages often act as a barrier to marriage for young people, leading them to delay it or skip it altogether and slide into nonmarital childbearing. The existing earned income tax credit (EITC) offers extremely meager benefits to low-income workers without children. Expanding the EITC as proposed by Elaine Maag, and colleagues or replacing it altogether with a wage subsidize, as proposed by Oren Cass, would help build the economic foundations necessary for healthy marriages.
  3. Expand the Child Tax CreditOur public policies need to do a much better job of acknowledging the cost of raising a family. According to government estimates, this amounts to almost $10,000 per year for many families. Providing cash benefits allows families to defray these costs and spend it as parents—not government bureaucrats—see as best for their children. In addition to reviving the Rubio-Lee proposal for expanding the child tax credit, Senators Bennet and Brown have proposed a more ambitious expansion as part of the American Family Act
  4. Introduce Paid Family Leave. If we believe that families are the bedrock of society, then we need to start supporting them when the time arises to take care of loved ones. This includes the birth or adoption of a child or caring for elderly relatives. Paid leave is a low-cost way to make family formation more affordable to average families. Additionally, evidence from California suggests access to paid leave reduces reliance on nursing homes by enabling family members to care for ailing relatives. There is no shortage of conservative proposals here. Whether it is building on the Social Security system, as is the case with Senator Rubio’s New Parents Act and Senators Ernst and Lee’s CRADLE Act, or on state unemployment insurance systems, as the Trump administration has proposed, it is clear that the time has come for paid family leave. 
  5. Revitalize Unemployment Insurance ProgramsRecent research suggests income instability has increased among families with children and has had a detrimental impact on family life. In the past, state unemployment insurance programs played a key role in helping families get by during economic recessions and adjust to changes in their local labor market. Lack of program modernization has led to the erosion of these vital state programs. A long-dormant proposal from the Brookings Institution offers common-sense reforms for strengthening the system and for strengthening families.

By building on existing programs, these policies offer fiscally responsible alternatives for conservatives that will resonate with the wider public. In addition to being good for families, casting a wider net with these policies will help mobilize the silent majority of pro-family voters. If effectively mobilized, these voters will be the populist countervailing power that has historically allowed the pro-family movement to assert itself in the face of the donor class’s financial power. It is time we put families first and do so explicitly. 

Joshua T. McCabe is a sociologist and assistant dean of social sciences at Endicott College.​​​​​​