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  • To lower the perceived cost of having a child, we need to change the script around parenting, rather than simply seeking to subsidize certain expenditures. Tweet This
  • I respect Bruenig’s intellectual honesty and his ability to push creative big ideas into the policy conversation. But his “no friends to the right” strategy is an odd tactical one. Tweet This

Those who wield the hammer of top-down policy change are always on the lookout for anything in the vague shape of a nail. But a comprehensive approach to making parenthood more affordable—and more “fun”—should entail approaches other than policy changes, no matter how bold. That is one point I tried to make in my recent blog post about Matt Bruenig’s “Family Fun Pack.”

Responding to my critique on his own site and on Twitter, Bruenig took my example of proactive corporate hiring of parents returning to the workforce as being the “totality of [my] alternative proposal.” Now, the words “for example” are usually interpreted by readers with good faith to mean “one example among many,” but for the sake of completeness, let me flesh out a little more what I have in mind in discussing “cultural change.”

Let’s stipulate agreement on the parts of the “Pack” I’ve already praised. The last half-century has seen a dramatic pendulum swing towards “quality” over “quantity” in the fertility trade-off. As a result, the expected cost of having a child is much higher now than in prior generations—car seats, medical expenditures, various degrees of helicopter parenting, per-household housing costs (the amount of space a family is perceived to need today is dramatically higher than in the 1950s), et cetera.

To lower the perceived cost of having a child, we need to change the script around parenting, rather than simply seeking to subsidize certain expenditures. Thus, my call for better corporate hiring practices: when would-be parents are evaluating the high cost of parenting, are they more likely to be swayed by the knowledge that their children’s lunches will be paid for five years hence, or that specific programs (maybe even tax incentives?) would be easing their path back into the workforce? Corporate America already runs diversity and inclusion programs targeting members of many marginalized groups. Targeting parents returning to the workforce should be prioritized, too.

There’s also a subtle anti-natalism in the disdain often directed at young parents, or parents of large families, that is amplified by popular media. Cultural scripts can change behavior; the canonical example here is the influence of Brazilian soap operas on fertility habits in that country. We don’t have to be Singapore to want to rethink our social messaging around family life.

Bruenig’s eyes might roll out of his head on this one, but there’s also the power of civil society to better support families and new parents. Communities could and should do more to use their assets (including, perhaps, aging populations) to help families build cross-generational support networks, and churches and other civic organizations should offer regular or as-needed free or heavily-subsidized child care as a regular ministry or program (oppressive regulations and insurance requirements make this difficult, currently). A national matching grant program, or seed money from foundations, could make this work easier as well.

Another critique I’ll redouble and extend further—Bruenig seeks to inoculate his universal child care plan by including the kind of home care payment I and others have advocated for. But he explicitly goes out of his way to disallow it past three years, writing: “Unlike with child care, there will be no benefits available to those seeking to do pre-k at home, i.e. through homeschooling.” One suspects that even amid this surfeit of public spending, he would find a reason to oppose some kind of education savings account or voucher that parents could use to obtain the style of schooling that was best for them. In a new and bold family policy, is the goal to help families raise the number of children they desire in the manner they see fit, or to shore up an expanded welfare state? It can be both, but Bruenig errs toward the latter.

A few other quick hits on what Bruenig mistook my arguments to be:

  • Expenditures data: He and I both agree that the USDA data should be used very cautiously. My only point in referencing it was to call into question the idea that child-related expenditures are inherently mismatched with lifetime earnings profiles. The “Family Fun Pack” says “the patterning of income during parenthood itself is nonsensical,” but if having a 16-year-old is more expensive than having a 2-year-old, and the parent’s wages 14 years later are commensurately higher, some concerns may be allayed. We might want to, as I suggested, target our interventions specifically to early childhood without expanding to, say, single-payer-for-teens.
  • Universality: Bruenig’s point here is well taken. Taxing the childless is an interesting strategy to test on the emerging,  leftist view that natality is problematic, but certain conservatives could jump on that bandwagon pretty quickly.
  • Baumol’s cost disease: Bruenig is right that the problem of nominal wage growth without underlying productivity can be solved by, in effect, earmarking a certain share of GDP to pay for the nominal cost of child care, if that’s what we want to do. Abstracting away from the greater ability of the private sector to drive innovation (I puckishly suggested the idea of a “Minute Clinic” for child care in our Twitter exchange), it still makes more sense to think of one-size-fits-all programs being more subject to rigidity and unsustainable growth rates than schemes that offer a wider variety of choice and competition (the Niskanen Center’s Sam Hammond made a variant of this critique yesterday.)

I respect Bruenig’s intellectual honesty and his ability to push creative big ideas into the policy conversation. But his “no friends to the right” strategy is an odd tactical one, especially when many center-right analysts and thinkers would be willing to work towards making a more limited version of the “Family Fun Pack” something with serious cross-ideological appeal.

My critiques are meant to be empirical, though, of course, our fundamental difference comes down to goals. One vision would be helping expand the choice set for families, through policy as well as through culture, enabling them to seek the good however they choose to structure their lives. Bruenig’s vision is one that would use the power of the state to offer a uniform set of benefits, aside from the laudable heterodox experimentation in the first three years of a child’s life. It’s a bold vision, with some areas on which we agree, but it’s not flawless, and Bruenig’s pretending otherwise does a disservice to making his goals a reality.

Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a Master’s of Public Affairs candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.