- A vocabulary grounded in faith might prove more useful in bridging the partisan divide with a discourse that rises above the ideological gap. Tweet This
- A national conversation pivoting on a covenantal discourse may even have the power to diminish the typical quid pro quo pork barrel trade-offs that often underpin federal and state funding allocations. Tweet This
For a generation, we have lived with bitter ideological gridlock in the way we talk about public policy. It is high time to try a new way of contributing to our national conversation. The American Rescue Plan provides that opportunity. Why? The American public has historically agreed with scholars that civil society rests most heavily on maintaining the family, and a cornerstone of the legislation is a focus on the family. States will soon be receiving a massive injection of block grant dollars for the childcare industry. Single-parent homes with earnings up to $75,000 will receive up to $3600 annually for each child under age 6 and up to $3,000 for children up to age 17. The same goes for two-parent homes earning up to $150,000. There are more tax credits and grant dollars on the way based on the proposed American Families Plan.
This immense infusion of cash for the sake of the American family has liberals excited and conservatives worried. By incentivizing states’ support for their childcare infrastructures, the American Rescue Plan ends up as legislative advocacy for the raising of children by third-party caregivers outside the home. Liberals argue there is no choice because struggling families need support. Regardless of the checkered legacy of the Great Society, big government advocates are sticking with their narrative that more federal largesse solves social problems. Conservatives counter that federal involvement in childcare would actually decrease equity. As Patrick Brown noted on this blog, “Married families with advanced levels of education are more likely to rely on center-based child care.” This system will result in more available slots in child care facilities, while the tax credit stipends arriving soon in the mail do not really do much to increase an impoverished family’s income. Though conservatives may favor a more deregulated variety of uses for American Rescue Plan funds, they are still making their case within the partisan framework of bigger or smaller government. Liberals and conservatives share in their lack of a moral argument that resonates with an overwhelming majority of the American public.
A vocabulary grounded in faith might prove more useful in bridging the partisan divide with a discourse that rises above the ideological gap. We already know of the religious propensity of the conservative flank in our politics, but President Biden also regularly invokes his Catholic faith as his lodestar. Judaism, as the source of the Hebrew Bible that our Founding Fathers held so dear in their belief in the sacredness of the individual, has something to say about the family. Indeed, the Hebraic tradition may illuminate a rhetorical and practical pathway forward on how to frame the family in public policy, resolving the current conservative-liberal impasse.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that in the family, two or more people come together out of a common moral commitment. A functioning government is contractual because it requires a mediated agreement for a legislature to operate, whereby the participants find a way to preserve their selfish interests for a limited time. Conversely, families are fundamentally cooperative and intended to be eternal. While government may be based on a social contract, family is based on a covenantal understanding. It is not, then, that government is either too big or too small, too regulated or too unregulated. Size and administration are utterly contingent on what is needed at the moment.
If the family becomes a prevalent source of public discourse around sustaining a dignified civil society, then an understanding of policy as a form of social cooperation that is framed by the idea of covenant, instead of a brokered and broken top-down politics, becomes more possible.
Today, 1 in 5 parents among both mothers and fathers are stay-at-home parents, and that’s not just due to lack of employment. The non-partisan Pew Research Center reports, “a growing share of stay-at-home fathers say they are home specifically to care for their home or family, suggesting that changing gender roles may be at play.” As more younger fathers and mothers commit to direct caregiving, government has a responsibility to respect the dignity of parenting. In order to ameliorate the friction between the contractual state and the covenantal family, new language is needed to depict the government’s decision to involve itself with the American family. A Biblical approach indicates that to alleviate the cleavages of socio-economic variables that affect child poverty, the redistribution of federal dollars for child care should be framed as a resource pool that offers provisions for families, rather than emphasizing fiscal grant formulas for child care workers and organizations, which is a contract-driven terminology ripe for partisan rancor.
Instead, why not start with words like “dignity” and “covenant”? Build policy from those rhetorical beginnings. Then, just as Jewish law constructs a community chest from which people can draw when in need, state governments can pool their federal child care block grants into funds allocated based on applications by families for specific child care purposes. Keep the requirements flexible and make these grants directly to families rather than third-party “vendors” subsidized by the state to raise other people’s children. Some families might prefer to utilize grants for a parent to be able to be home more and not have to deposit their child in a day care facility through evening. Others might need tutors or funds to cover tuition fees for a meaningful extracurricular program. It’s about dignity for parents and their children.
Offering families personalized grants reorients parent and child to their respective Biblical roles as pedagogue and student. There is no one size fits all when it comes to how parents care for their children. This recapturing by the state of the home as a locus of human dignity speaks more widely to a post-partisan possibility built upon the government’s recognition of cooperative familial relationships at the heart of any polis. A national conversation pivoting on a covenantal discourse may even have the power to diminish the typical quid pro quo pork barrel trade-offs that often underpin federal and state funding allocations. That kind of special interest deal making will seem petty and slight when held up against the honor of simply supporting the dignity of the American family. There can be no partisanship when it comes to helping parents and children spend more time together or offering a young person the chance to pursue a talent. If the family becomes a prevalent source of public discourse around sustaining a dignified civil society, then an understanding of policy as a form of social cooperation that is framed by the idea of covenant, instead of a brokered and broken top-down politics, becomes more possible.
Abraham Unger, Ph.D. is Director of Urban Programs and Associate Professor of Government and Politics at Wagner College and Senior Fellow at the Orthodox Union Center for Communal Research. He is the author of A Jewish Public Theology and The Death and Life of the American Middle Class.