Here at NC Family, we are dedicated to serving families and advocating for pro-family policy. But there are often conflicting opinions on just what families need when it comes to public policy. Recent initiatives and legislation, particularly at the national level, that are purported to help families—such as the Build Back Better bill—contain measures that would actually be detrimental to families.
Well this week on the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes back Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to discuss his recent article, “5 Ways to Make America More Family-Friendly.” Brown provides practical tips for how everyone can advocate for a family-friendly approach to public policy.
In order to craft policies that work for American families, Brown says that “there needs to be a recognition that America is a nation with a lot of strengths, a lot of unique characteristics, and working with those rather than trying to reshape America to fit some ideal of what we think it should look like.”
One of the things that currently penalizes families is marriage penalties in the tax code. “We know that marriage is a much more stable union,” says Brown, “not just for the parents, but also for any children involved.” By penalizing cohabitating, unmarried parents for marrying, the current tax code works against families.
Another thing that could make America more family friendly, according to Brown, is expanding school choice. “Every family should be able to make the choice that is right for them,” regardless of zip code or income. Along with that, cost of living can hurt families. “Increasing competition in the healthcare industry and relaxing some of the onerous regulations around building new housing…these are things especially at the state level that policymakers should be really attuned to.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Patrick T. Brown’s 5 ways that we can make America more family-friendly.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As you’ve likely heard, our vision statement here at NC Family reads, “A state in nation where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.” Well, our job here is to help lawmakers and citizens create policies that help that vision become more of a reality.
Well speaking of helping families thrive, our guest today is here to discuss what can be done to improve the lives of American families, and why the United States needs a uniquely American approach to family policy.
Patrick T. Brown, a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
PATRICK T. BROWN: Thanks so much. It’s great to be back.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, so you have studied family public policy in different countries around the world. What are some of the best international examples of pro-life policy, do you think?
PATRICK T. BROWN: A lot of countries in the last decade or more started to realize that the problems facing families are starting to have an impact on their birth rate. So a lot of countries are sort of explicitly pursuing pronatalist goals, trying to increase their birth rate. This can take a variety of different features, from giving families cash for having babies, or trying to have a welfare state approach to providing all these sort of government programs like universal childcare and that sort of thing. So when you look at family policy around the globe, you’re really struck by the fact that there is no shortage of examples out there that we might want to learn from when thinking about supporting families here in the U.S. Looking either at what places like Scandinavia are doing with their very robust welfare state approach, to some countries in Eastern Europe that some people on the Right here in the U.S. have been trying to do; there’s different ways that we can go about supporting families and helping them thrive. So I think, as you alluded to, the approaches that are going to work best here in the U.S. are the one that are most in keeping with the U.S.’s understanding of what the government should be doing, and so that’s what I think we want to be talking about and thinking about.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So is that what you mean when you say that America needs a distinctly American family policy?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Yeah. So a lot of folks on the Right—a lot of my friends who are more conservative—have started to look at places like Hungary that have really been emphasizing the sort of “patriotic duty” of people to increase the birth rate, to sort of advance the nation of Hungary. That might work nicely for Hungary, but that’s something that I don’t think really resonates with people in America. People aren’t not having babies because they’re not feeling patriotic; there’s actual social and economic pressures that are pushing against people’s natural tendency to want to have a family. So ways that we can try to understand working within our American system. We have 50 states for a reason; our system was set up as one that tries to develop power down to the local level. So a national policy that tries to do a one-size-fits-all approach—the same in Raleigh as in Bakersfield, California—is going to have a harder time finding traction. So working with that and realizing that federalism and local policy can be just as effective an approach as trying to help make it easier for families, is going to be important for conservatives who want to make our public policies more family friendly.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Talk a little bit about what you consider to be the biggest weaknesses of American family policy, or perhaps the greatest threats that are facing American families.
PATRICK T. BROWN: One is this sort of natural tendency to assume that the government’s best role is to just get out of the way and people will naturally do what comes, you know, naturally. I think we are seeing that Americans face much lower taxes than a lot of other countries, and certainly in the historical sweep of things, we’re not excessively taxed. (Although some people may feel that way; it certainly is no fun paying taxes.) But that doesn’t seem to be the biggest damper on people’s fertility and household formation choices. I think there’s a much more cultural aspect to this, where people who get married at age 25 today…that wouldn’t have been anything to remark on in previous generations. But now that is seen as getting married obscenely early in some circles. I think there’s the opportunity cost of having a child—not just the expenses of diapers and that sort of thing, but taking time out of the workforce or taking time out of your education. A lot of times people’s sort of prime years for having a child coincide with being in school or starting that job, and so they’re faced with these conflicting responsibilities or these conflicting desires.
So finding ways to realize that sometimes those are things that the government can step in, and we don’t necessarily need to just have the hands-off approach to say, “Well, whatever is best for the economy is best for families.” That’s not always true. If a company is setting a worker’s schedule the day before or two days in advance and making it harder for parents to juggle their responsibilities in the workplace and at home, that’s something that there might be a role for policy to step in and intervene. I don’t think that needs to be a full Scandinavian style welfare state, but I think there are approaches to public policy that say, “What is best for parents and what is going to make parents’ lives easier, both current parents and people who might be thinking of having a child.” And I think those will have just as much an impact as some of the more extreme versions of profamily policy that we’ve seen in other countries.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you also mentioned, and you talked about this or alluded to this a little bit earlier, that the changes that we make to family-oriented policy should match our national character. So what do you consider our national character to be?
PATRICK T. BROWN: That’s a great question. I think one thing that I have in mind with that is this ongoing debate that we’re having about the expanded child tax credit, which was instituted (as a lot of folks may know) as part of the COVID relief package that was passed in the early months of the Biden Administration that provided no-strings-attached cash to all parents. I happen to think that was probably the right thing, but it’s proven politically unpopular. One of the reasons why is I think Americans have this innate desire for self-sufficiency and this strong conviction that work really matters; we want to be incentivizing people to work as being part of a social contract, and just handing out benefits to all parents—even though I think lots of us would agree that parents who are staying home with their kid are working just as hard as people who are working in the labor force—that there’s a sort of cultural recognition that work is something that is valuable and should be rewarded. So a no-strings-attached approach to cash benefits is not something that Americans seem that interested in. So I think that’s an example of a way that designing public policies to support families need to recognize, “Okay, well, there probably should be a connection to the workforce in some way.” And recognizing that Americans, as we’ve seen certainly in the last couple years with the pandemic, we are a much less collectivist nation than a lot of other places, and that is a double-edged sword, but we are independent. We are sort of small-L “libertarian.” We don’t want the government telling us what to do. So there needs to be a recognition that America is a nation with a lot of strengths, a lot of unique characteristics, and working with those rather than trying to reshape America to fit some ideal of what we think it should look like.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You wrote an article for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “5 Ways to Make America More Family Friendly,” and this article kind of stuck out to me because it’s very practical. We might see that there are some issues but how on earth do we tackle those? Could you just take us through what you think those five ways are that we can put our hands to and try to make some changes on?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Definitely. Obviously there’s way more than five we could think about. I think the first, certainly on the national level, is making the tax code more family friendly, so things like maybe a first-time homebuyers credit, expanding those kind of opportunities, especially in a post-Roe society, hopefully. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Mississippi law, there’s going to be a lot of parents who are facing unplanned pregnancies who are now going to be maybe faced with financial burdens, and we should be supporting them both materially but also through the tax code and other public policies.
Related to that secondly is marriage penalties in the tax code and in some of our social safety net programs, which actually penalize cohabitating couples if they get married. We know that marriage is a much more stable union, not just for the parents, but also for any children involved. So if we want to use the power of the state to encourage strong families and help those kids achieve better futures, we should invest in eliminating those penalties that come from if you get married and you lose some of your benefits, or if your tax rate goes up. That has a real—not a major impact, but on the margin—it certainly has a real impact on the lives of low income, working class people. So that would be another thing.
Third, I think this is something that you guys are very familiar with in North Carolina, but expanding the choices available to parents. All parents across the income spectrum should have their choice of where they want to send their child to school. That shouldn’t be limited by zip code or income, and really should be part of a robust profamily agenda, recognizing that every family should be able to make the choice that is right for them.
Fourth: cost of living, and this is a really broad bucket, but things like housing and healthcare and some of the other things that really impact families’ wallets. Increasing competition in the healthcare industry and relaxing some of the onerous regulations around building new housing. I think these are things especially at the state level that policymakers should be really attuned to.
And then lastly, I think this is something that a lot of folks on the Right have been focused on over the past decades, but can never be understated enough: there are always cultural threats to families as well, whether that’s things like unfettered access to pornography or some of the gender ideology stuff that’s happening in public school classrooms. Shining a light on those, finding creative ways to give parents more tools to raise children the way they want to and in the values that they hold dear; I think that’s something that can’t be lost while we’re focusing on these sorts of economic factors, which are extremely important in supporting families. There’s also that cultural aspect too. So a long-winded answer, but those are kind of my five areas that I try to focus on when I’m thinking about making America more family friendly.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: : Alright, excellent! That’s a great synopsis. Let’s talk a little bit, before we go, about some groups that may be trying to use family policy to form or change America. Do you see the Build Back Better agenda with President Biden and his administration as an example of that?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Yeah, the fundamental flaw of the Build Back Better approach—and this is not just Build Back Better, but a lot of the ideology that forms these big sweeping legislative vehicles—is this idea that there’s really nothing special about families; they just happen to be a collection of individuals that share the same roof for a while, but the best thing that the government can do is relieving parents of their obligations as caregivers and helping them get back into the labor force as soon as possible through things like universal childcare. The marriage penalties that I talked about earlier are often just sort of ignored because marriage isn’t treated as something that’s important in a lot of elite circles; it’s just seen as an ancillary thing that, “Oh, if people want to get married, they can, but there’s really no reason for the government to be involved.”
But again, the social science tells us that’s bad for the partners and it’s bad for the children. And so it’s an approach to policymaking that places the individual first and foremost, and what’s most important is sort of maximizing their utility. I think that’s just a really hollow way of looking at public policy. When you have these programs like universal childcare or other things that sort of try to have the state play the role that parents can…certainly as a lot of people are familiar with the quote that sort of lost the Virginia governor’s election a couple months ago: the idea that parents shouldn’t have any say in what public schools are teaching their children. That just is backwards, and I think to your point is a way of sort of remaking society to be much more individualistic and less concerned about what strengthens families in the communities that they’re part of. Instead, we should be having a policy agenda that really prizes families and pluralism in the broadest sense of the word; having families be part of faith communities, neighborhoods, cities, that they can feel ownership in and take pride in—that should be what our agenda is about. Strengthening those intermediary institutions, rather than just saying, “How could we free individuals up as much as possible by using the power of the state to do so?”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well if people want to read what you’ve been writing about this, or follow your work, how would they go about doing that?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Well, they’re certainly welcome, if they’re on social media, to follow me on Twitter @PTBWrites, and the best place to find not only my writing, but the writing of all my colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center is on our website, which is www.eppc.org.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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