The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) recently released a report entitled “Working-Class Americans’ Views on Family Policy.” The report drew its results from a variety of focus groups and essays from working-class Americans from across the country.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and he authored the IFS report. Brown joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss what working-class Americans really think about family policy.
Brown explains that the people he surveyed were usually working hourly wage jobs, families making between $30,000-$50,000 annually. This contrasts with those who tend to work in D.C. and in state capitals. Brown argues that this means policymakers tend not fully understand what working-class families want or need.
“People that we talked to on the whole—not everyone, but a lot of people,” says Brown, “just expressed a desire to feel like people in DC were listening to them and knew what they were going through.”
“The unifying theme that kind of popped out in a lot of those essays [and focus groups] was that the things that make the headlines in DC and the things politicians pay attention to and get in fights over […] are not what is keeping people up at night.” Rather than the border wall or debt ceiling or climate change, working-class families were concerned with the complexity of healthcare, affordable housing, and support for working moms, to name a few.
“This report was really a reminder that a lot of people don’t think about these questions in red or blue or left and right terms. […] What gets translated into the Republican vs. Democrat binary in DC is just such a pale representation of the true diversity of opinion that exists in communities across America.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Patrick T. Brown share more of his findings on working-class families and family policy.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Do you ever feel like the discussion about public policy and what’s best for families somehow is not about you and your family? Well, there’s one group of Americans that apparently feels left out of that discussion and that’s working class families.
Well the Institute for Family Studies organized focus groups of working class Americans to talk about what they feel is most important. The results, a report entitled “Working-Class Americans’ Views on Family Policy.” Patrick T. Brown is a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and was the author of that report. He joins us today to unpack some of what policy makers may not be hearing from working class families.
Patrick Brown, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
PATRICK T. BROWN: Thank you so much for having me. Greetings from Columbia, South Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: First of all, could you just start by defining what do you mean by working class families?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Sure. So we set up a series of three focus groups working with partner organizations: one in Southwest Ohio; one in Atlanta, Georgia; and one in San Antonio, Texas. When we were looking for participants to participate in those focus groups, we wanted parents who aren’t necessarily gunning for that corner office suite or sort of an upwardly aspirational career track, like being a lawyer or a doctor or something. We wanted families who were just making ends meet, working in a variety of professions, everything from cable installers, to a stay-at-home mom who had an internet-based entrepreneurial business that she was starting, to a HVAC installer, all sorts of people who work in retail; people who are working usually hourly wage jobs who are just trying to make ends meet and put food on the table for their families without necessarily seeing their careers as the be-all and end-all of their life.
I think one of the distinctions that we find is as we do the work of talking to families and also working with policymakers and their staff in DC and state capitals is that a lot of the people who are doing policy work in places like DC tend to be people who went to elite colleges, who tend to be married to people who went to elite colleges, who are both hard-charging, Type A personalities. And I have no problem with that; some of my best friends fit this model. But they are people who really take a lot of meaning from work, and so the solutions that they come up with tend to be things that allow for a greater flexibility between work and life. So things like universal childcare and that sort of approach to life that really places an emphasis on career fulfillment. That’s not what we hear when we talk to families who are sort of in this income band of people making $30,000 to $50,000 a year, who really wish that the policy would allow them to have more time with their family and make their life more stable and provide a helping hand to just kind of make things last until the end of the month a little easier, and help give them more choices. That’s what we heard.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re going to unpack a lot of what you found, but I was interested to see that in addition to the focus groups, you had a project that recruited working-class Americans and asked them to write essays telling lawmakers what they wish that they knew about their working-class lives. So tell us a little bit about that.
PATRICK T. BROWN: That’s right. We recruited about 20 writers from across the country, in 16 different states, and we just gave them an open-ended prompt. “What do you wish politicians knew about the challenges facing your family and community?” We got a wide range of responses and on a wide variety of topics, everything from social security to conservation and farming policy, obviously COVID was in there; but the one unifying theme that kind of popped out in a lot of those essays was that the things that make the headlines in DC and the things that politicians pay attention to and get in fights over and get on cable news on are not what is keeping people up at night. It’s not climate change and it’s not the border wall, and it’s not these things that get you on the front page of the newspaper, like a debt ceiling and whatever else. It was the complexity of healthcare, trying to figure out what is my deductible and what is the network that I’m in. It’s the inability to be able to afford living near their relatives and the cost of housing and wishing that there were more multi-generational options that you could live with your parents or your extended family to provide more support. It was the lack of support for working moms and their maternal health and the problem of postpartum depression that never really gets talked about at the national state stage. All these issues were stuff that, like I said, keep parents up at night and never really make it onto the national agenda. And it’s just another example of how the things that families that we know in our daily lives and community, their discussions aren’t the ones that are being held in the corridors of power in New York and DC, and that sort of thing.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What a wonderful project, and I’m so glad that you guys took this on. So did you find similar responses in both of these projects?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Definitely some common theme of feeling unheard, that the problems that parents were facing just didn’t even register on the DC agenda. So in that sense, it was really a reminder that a lot of people don’t think about these questions in red or blue or left and right terms. They just want government to work and they want government to make their lives easier without necessarily having a giant safety net, social welfare state. I remember one essay from a woman in Wadesboro, North Carolina, who works at a major retail chain and just said, “Sometimes it’s frustrating when you’re right on that borderline between the amount of money that you’re able to take home in your paycheck, and you’re sort of on the verge of qualifying for some safety net benefits, and if you get a raise, often you lose those benefits, because you’re just now sort of over that threshold.” And that was interesting because that was something we heard in some of the focus groups as well. They felt like government was sort of punishing them for doing well.
We also heard from some parents in that focus group about marriage penalties in the tax code, where if you are cohabitating with someone and you have maybe children, or you’re thinking about forming a family, sometimes your tax rates will go up if you get married, because now you’re being taxed at the married rate rather than two single people. That’s something that you sort of think of abstractly as, oh, does that actually make a difference? But no, we talked to one woman who said, frankly that she wishes she could get married, but the financial penalty that her and her partner would incur by now being taxed at that higher rate just doesn’t make sense to them. So, there were a lot of these interesting threads that popped up in some of the essays and some of the focus group discussions, and it was just a reminder that what gets translated into the Republican vs. Democrat binary in DC is just such a pale representation of the true diversity of opinion that exists in communities across America.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: This is going to sound like a cynical question, but at least on the federal level, with the way our lobbying is set up and the way that people gain access to our lawmakers, is it realistic to think that our lawmakers are going to really care about this and do something about it?
PATRICK T. BROWN: I mean, no. But also I think there’s room to believe that there’s room to change. Currently, I agree that the conversation in DC, it is especially frustrating and not just in DC, but in a lot of a lot of state capitals. As I mentioned at the outset, we get so caught up in these fights over the sort of either red meat, cultural issues on the one hand, or the sort of big, sweeping social changes that are really out of keeping with sort of the American tradition of self-government on the other. It can be frustrating, but I think there’s a real acknowledgement that a lot of the frustration that we’ve seen in politics over the last 5 years, 10 years, maybe more, that sort of unrest and tension and frustration that people feel, some of it can be addressed by a more responsive government that makes people feel heard.
And I think that was something that came through in both the essays that we commissioned, but also in the focus groups. We didn’t hear a lot of people asking for big government solutions, but we also didn’t hear for people asking government to get out of the way and just leave them alone. People that we talked to on the whole—not everyone, but a lot of people—just expressed a desire to feel like people in DC were listening to them and knew what they were going through. I think that if there’s nothing else that we can learn from these past years of such polarized politics, it’s that there’s a lot of frustration out there. If there are politicians of goodwill who are actually interested in figuring out ways to address some of that frustration, rather than just play on it for political purposes, then I think these questions are the ones that need to be answered.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I think that’s a really good point. I mean, working-class folks have one vote like everyone, right? And what they need, I guess, is a champion up there, somebody to step up and speak for them.
PATRICK T. BROWN: It’s something to hold your politicians accountable for. It requires us to listen to our better angels at times, and not just respond to the politician that necessarily channels our anger, but the one who recognizes that there are things in our education system and our workforce development system and in our healthcare system that are real problems that really do impact people’s lives, but that can be solved constructively and not just used as part of the talking points. So whether that’s running for president, governor, or all the way down to school board, I think it’s incumbent on parents and community members to be thinking about which politician actually is offering a constructive agenda rather than one that’s just sort of mouthing platitudes and has no plan to do anything about it.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right, and I think you make a good point about some of the local offices that you mentioned, because with our work at the North Carolina Family Policy Council, we’ve often discovered that some of the things that happen on the local level or the state level bubble up to the federal level, so it can begin there. So what do you think are some things that people could do to start on the local or state level, if they listen and they go, “Yes, I want to get involved somehow on this.”
PATRICK T. BROWN: Well, I think one thing that’s really hot right now, so to speak, is education, and obviously North Carolina isn’t a stranger to some of these controversies. But I think that this past year and a half, where we’ve gone through so much, and there’s been so much dissent and disagreement about who public schools are ultimately responsible to and how they should be governed and what interests they should represent. I think there’s a lot of frustration with the sort of traditional, district school model of education. For the last couple of decades, I think those of us who are on the right—as I would sort of define myself—have thought of school choice as being something that we need to do to offer a life raft to kids who are stuck in sort of failing inner city schools. And that was good and there was progress made on that front, but I think it’s no longer enough. I think we need to be thinking about school choice as being broader than just a life raft for kids who are facing failing schools, but really a way for parents to find the environment for their child that is going to be best for them holistically, whether that’s academically, socially, spiritually, extracurricularly. Giving parents more choices in the school that they are able to find for their kids, just broadening the options that are available to parents and really making that a cornerstone of especially a state agenda, realizing that this is a more honest way of dealing with some of these differences that really polarize communities and really have caused so much tension over the last year and a half. Just saying, okay, yeah, we recognize that public schools aren’t necessarily receiving sacred texts from on high and they’re not to be questioned, but realizing that there’s different values at play, different understandings of some of these controversial topics. We should be giving parents more choices to affirm their family’s values and upbringing and finding the place that’s right for their kids. So I think that that is what I hope people can really focus on, especially in this coming years.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: A good example, and I’m sure there are others. But where can we follow you? Can we go to a website to read the new report that you’ve just put out, the “Working-class Americans’ Views on Family Policy,” and just to follow your work?
PATRICK T. BROWN: Sure. So, the report that we’ve been talking about, it was a publication of The Institute for Family Studies. If you go to IFStudies.org, you’ll be able to find that pretty easily. You can also go to EPPC.org, which is my organization, the Ethics and Public Policy Center. If you’re on social media, I’m on Twitter @PTBwrites. And I look forward to hearing from your listeners and to engaging further on these questions. I think there’s definitely momentum for orienting policy in a more pro-family direction, and I am excited to see some of the reception that we’ve received.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Patrick T. Brown, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.