- Neither party has been holistic in its vision for a culture that values life, children, and parenthood. Tweet This
- Conservatives need to be for things, too. Specifically, for what would really change the experience around having a baby and family in a meaningful way. Tweet This
- The challenge in front of conservatives is how to prioritize the most pressing reforms, coalesce around them, and [craft] a new vision for flourishing families that’s substantive and forward looking, not simply reactive. Tweet This
Conservatives can rebrand themselves as the pro-family party. And they should. But it will take more than being against Democrat priorities and woke ideology. It’s going to take significant policy changes to meet the needs families are facing.
There are many reasons to pursue family-friendly reforms: the decline of marriage and fertility, the rising costs associated with raising a child, the role of family stability in economic opportunity. But to me, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision this summer was the inflection point. It was a victory of protection for our most vulnerable children, one squarely associated with conservatives and the Republican party.
The indirect result was that it shone a spotlight on what else conservatives are doing to support women and children. This revealed that the Red states most likely to roll back abortion access are those that have not developed robust programs to support families, and in particular vulnerable families. The reverse is also true. Blue states who hold to abortion on demand are those that provide the most benefits to mothers, fathers, and their newborn children.
Which is to say, that neither party has been holistic in its vision for a culture that values life, children, and parenthood. Politically, conservatives have a unique opportunity to create a new policy agenda given their dominant position heading into midterms and potentially 2024.
The temptation is going to be to rail against the trillion in spending that would have been in Build Back Better, against our bleak budget outlook, or the prolonged school closures that severely compromised student outcomes, or what amounts to abortion on demand—at any time for any reason—even though most Americans support limits. There’s plenty of material there.
But conservatives need to be for things, too. Specifically, for what would really change the experience around having a baby and family in a meaningful way that would make our country a healthier place.
Here’s one way: Conservatives can make it easier for parents—regardless of their income level, family structure or work arrangement—to bond with their newborns.
To me, this issue is the heart of family policy. As a mother of three and researcher into paid leave for over a decade now, I can tell you there’s little good that comes from separating a child from a parent too early, exposing infants to compromised child care situations, cutting off breastfeeding early, experiencing job uncertainty when you’re up in the middle of the night, and the severe financial hardship from going an extended period without pay, especially for low-income and single-parent families.
And yet, too often this is exactly the case. Approximately 40% of workers do not have job protection following childbirth. While more companies are providing paid leave, it’s an exemption not the rule—75% of people do not have paid family leave from their employer. According to one study, one in four mothers return to work within two weeks. A new families survey from Deseret News and BYU found that the few low-and-moderate-income families could go less than a month without pay before going into debt.
We can fix this. It is the logical outgrowth of a pro-life agenda. Paid parental leave reduces neonatal fatalities and improves health outcomes for mothers and infants. This is pro-life, too. It increases workforce attachment and decreases welfare dependence for mothers by allowing them to stay connected to the labor force; these were the Republican priorities guiding welfare reform in the 1990s. Paid parental leave is even associated with increased father involvement later in life, the role of men and fathers being something that’s being discussed much these days.
Fortunately, there are multiple Republican proposals for paid leave being discussed in Congress. These proposals include pulling forward Child Tax Credit payments to be used for birth or pregnancy; providing monthly Child Tax Credit payments; running paid parental leave through state unemployment insurance programs; allowing workers to access Social Security early to cover periods of paid family leave; and extending an existing a tax credit for employers who offer paid family leave to certain workers.
My preferred version is a stand-alone paid parental leave program akin to that proposed by the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Leave (which I was a part of). This would allow mothers and fathers 8 weeks of job-protected paid parental leave that replaces a majority of their salary, which is likely to improve take-up rates. A paid parental leave program—even one of this generosity—is less than 1% of what is currently spent on old-age entitlements. Ideally, this would be paid for as part of a border entitlement reform as I detailed in National Affairs, and as will be detailed in an AEI volume co-edited by Paul Ryan and Angela Rachidi to be released in November 2022. Given increased chatter of Republicans addressing entitlements after midterms, the inclusion of paid parental leave is far from improbable.
Of course, paid parental leave isn’t the only pro-family policy. Senators Burr and Scott have a robust child care proposal that would give low-income parents a school choice model for early childhood. Senator Romney has proposed comprehensive Child Tax Credit reform (he presented it here, at AEI, in fact) to reconcile broken government programs and deliver benefits how parents actually prefer to get them. A recent Republican Study Committee report listed out 80 recommendations a few weeks ago.
The challenge in front of conservatives is how to prioritize the most pressing reforms, coalesce around them, and then to take that message out with a new vision for flourishing families that’s substantive and forward looking, not simply reactive.
Abby McCloskey (@McCloskeyAbby) is an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy LLC. She has advised multiple presidential campaigns.
Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from remarks the author gave at the American Enterprise Institute’s recent Leadership Summit.