- The discussion in elite policy circles is often disconnected from how public policy is heard and discussed by working-class families. Tweet This
- The single word spoken most often across all three focus group sessions was “work,” pointing to both its rhetorical importance and real source of meaning and stability for the families we talked to. Tweet This
This past year has seen no shortage of policy discussions about helping families, but few of these discussions have talked to working families about what kind of help they need. A new report released today, Working Class Americans' Views on Family Policy, is meant to bridge that gap.
The Institute for Family Studies, in conjunction with Better Angels, the Georgia Center for Opportunity, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, organized three focus groups in Spring 2021 to talk to working-class parents about different family policies being proposed and what they wished politicians knew about the challenges facing them and their communities. We heard from a group of white working-class parents in southwest Ohio, black parents in the Atlanta region, and Hispanic parents around the San Antonio area.
What we heard was proof that the discussion in elite policy circles is often disconnected from how public policy is heard and discussed by working-class families. While each group had different concerns and perspectives, there were three themes that were consistent across the sessions—frustration, fairness, and flexibility.
Frustration: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”
One phrase came up over and over again when working-class parents would talk about what they saw as the lack of a safety net for the middle-class: “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Work hard, many parents felt, and you’re rewarded by being ineligible for government assistance or safety-net programs, but at the same time, your take-home pay won’t be enough to cover the ever-escalating cost of living.
Fairness: A “hand up” for those working, no “handouts” for those that aren’t
The single word spoken most often across all three sessions was “work,” pointing to both its rhetorical importance and real source of meaning and stability for the families we talked to. Most of the participants could name families that were struggling and needed help but placed a heavy preference on benefits being “fair” and conditioned on participation in the labor force. The idea of universal cash benefits for parents was not received positively by most participants.
Flexibility: A middle ground between big government and going it alone
Parents wanted flexibility, not a one-size-fits-all approach. In federal tax credit programs, participants generally preferred being given the choice between delivery of monthly benefit payments or annual lump sums. There was a general consensus in favor of voucher-type plans that would allow them to find a child care provider themselves, rather than expanding Head Start or extending the public education model. Many talked about smoothing out the benefit cliffs that punish workers who are just outside of a given income threshold or cut-off and reducing marriage penalties in the tax code.
Work hard, many parents felt, and you’re rewarded by being ineligible for government assistance or safety-net programs, but at the same time, your take-home pay won’t be enough to cover the ever-escalating cost of living.
We heard working-class parents share their thoughts on a variety of policy topics and their well-being:
- On Child Tax Credits:
- “Some people are working and doing their best, but they’re working at, like, McDonald’s, you know? They’re still low-income…but not making a crapload of money.”
- “I think that a lot of people that don’t work and get the benefit, it’s a little unfair…It’s going to just allow them to abuse it, not have to work.”
- “Is it going to have any kind of positive long-term effects on poverty or generational poverty? $250-300 a month isn’t enough to transform your life.”
- On Child Care:
- “You hear about help for low-income families, but not for the middle; there’s a certain cap that it stops at and I feel like that needs to be revamped.”
- “Everyone has different wants, and [wants] different options. Everyone [should] have a choice, not one-size-fits-all.”
- “Who’s going to be able to qualify? And what sort of income levels are we looking at? Not to mention the state budget—where’s that money coming from to pay for that program? Does that mean higher taxes?”
- On Making Ends Meet:
- “I think the middle class is struggling more than the lower class, because the lower class has so many more opportunities for programs, than the working [or] middle class.”
- “I think it takes two financially to hold a household together…I do believe that the man should feel responsible for the family, [but the] cost of living is so high that it does take two incomes to make it happen.”
- “[As a working mom,] I would love not to work. I think my kids would [too]. I noticed that when I’m home more from not working, they thrive.”
- “[In] the skilled trades, there’s a huge deficit of workers and millions of vacancies across the country. No one ever really talks about that…I think there’s this romance surrounding college.”
This report also includes survey results on family policy topics from the 2021 American Compass Home Building Survey. But its primary purpose is to shine a qualitative spotlight on how working-class families think and talk about a range of topics relating to families’ economic and social well-being. Public opinion polls are an essential tool for estimating how many Americans might respond a certain way to a given question, but our hope is that this report gives a better sense of what is running through their heads when they do.
Download the full report here.