The Future of Family Policy

Abby M. McCloskey

Current Issue

Quite possibly the most sweeping family-policy proposal in American history has been sitting before Congress in recent months, embedded in a trillion-dollar-plus reconciliation package. Across its various iterations, the bill has incorporated nearly every family-oriented priority the left has championed over the years, from universal preschool and comprehensive paid family leave to child allowances and caps on child-care costs as a percentage of income.

With the challenges facing families raising young children running broad and deep, the environment is certainly ripe for reform. Child-care costs outpace those of housing and college in many parts of the country, likely contributing to falling fertility rates. American mothers are leaving the labor force at a higher rate than their counterparts in much of the rest of the developed world. The rash of school and daycare closures in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have only hammered against fractures in the existing system, adding urgency to the need to create better options for working parents now and in the future.

Underlying these challenges are fundamental shifts in work and family life that have transformed caregiving needs. Since 1960, the share of children living in households headed by single parents has tripled, with approximately one-third of today's children living with an unmarried mother or father. Additionally, the majority of women now participate in the labor force, and in 41% of American families, the mother is either the sole or the main breadwinner. Thanks in large part to these changes, most parents with young children now require child-care services outside the home.

America's aging pillars of family policy haven't held up well under these new pressures. The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) — designed to help working parents pay for child-care expenses — was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Aside from a pandemic-related boost, the size of the credit hasn't increased much since then. Today, at its maximum, it offsets barely two months of average child-care costs per child. And since the CDCTC is non-refundable, most low-income families are not eligible for it.

Another relic of the 20th century, the Family and Medical Leave Act, provides 12 weeks of job protection related to family caregiving and childbirth. But it comes without pay and excludes 40% of the labor force due to employer-size and job-tenure restrictions, forcing some mothers to return to work just weeks after giving birth. Meanwhile, due to chronic underfunding, the federal funds given to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant serve only one in five eligible children. While some states and cities have implemented family policies of their own, these efforts offer a patchwork of support at best, and most families aren't able to choose which state to live in based on family policy alone.

It is amid this environment of outdated public programs and mounting challenges for American families that Democrats have cast their vision for universal, publicly funded care. Though well-intended, their approach is the wrong one for children, parents, and the economy.

The salience of the left's family-policy agenda can be attributed in part to its contrast with a policy vacuum on the right, making the choice a seemingly binary one between doing something and doing nothing. Indeed, for years, the state of family policy has largely been one of Democrats calling for universal, far-reaching, expensive programs to reshape child care, while Republicans, not wanting to tip the scales against stay-at-home parents or create yet another major government program, either deny the need for reform or put forth limited changes that fail to address the specific challenges at hand.

There's certainly merit to conservatives' cautious approach — particularly in its desire to avoid heavy-handed government involvement in family life, along with its recognition that economic growth can do much to help alleviate the financial pressures facing families. But in practice, the strategy has failed to deliver support where it's most needed, and has thus served as an implicit defense of an unpopular and unsustainable status quo. As a May 2021 Bipartisan Policy Center/Morning Consult poll found, among America's parents, 88% believe expanding government support would be beneficial for parents and children, including 95% of liberals and 79% of conservatives.

Part of the right's problem is that what goes in comes out. A mere glance at the rosters of the top think tanks in the nation shows that there exists a significant imbalance between the right and the left when it comes to the number of scholars focused on family-policy issues, which limits the dynamism necessary to generate creative, inclusive, and innovative reforms. Such trends extend to Congress: Research shows that female legislators are more likely than their male counterparts to work on issues directly connected to women and young children, yet Republicans continue to trail Democrats in female representation. Though some Republican policymakers were more supportive of measures like paid parental leave or child care during the Trump administration, they are again putting distance between themselves and such reforms, no doubt to draw a greater distinction between the GOP and spendthrift Democrats. But this tactic further cements the impression of a binary choice.

There are better ways to deliver meaningful support to American families. Conservative values can inform family policy in ways that recognize the diversity of caregiving needs and priorities among families, direct interventions to where they are most needed, promote parental choice and involvement, and advance fiscal responsibility, if for no other reason than to protect the rising generation that such policies seek to benefit.

THE LEFT'S UNIVERSALITY

If there's one word to describe the Democrats' approach to family policy, it's "universality." When their adherence to universality takes on an ideological bent, it not only drives up costs, it also supersedes what research suggests is most beneficial for children and parents.

President Joe Biden's universal-preschool plan, wherein all three- and four-year-olds would have access to publicly funded preschool irrespective of their family's income, is a prime example. The White House claims this approach would improve all children's educational outcomes, but the research supporting this claim is limited. While a Brookings study of the long-running universal-preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma found improved academic outcomes and increased parental involvement for at-risk children, it found "no positive effect" among higher-income children. Indeed, most studies confirm that the greatest benefits of universal preschool accrue to children from low-income families, who wouldn't otherwise have access to high-quality care inside or outside the home. This raises the question of why lawmakers are not pursuing more targeted preschool programs.

In theory, universal preschool could create healthy peer effects and build up social capital. But in practice, it often hasn't worked out this way. In public K-12 education, children from low-income families tend to be concentrated in the worst-performing schools, where achievement gaps between them and their higher-income peers have held steady for years. These trends extend to universal preschool: Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recently uncovered growing achievement gaps among four-year-olds in New York City's universal-preschool program, with black and Latino preschoolers predominating in the lowest-performing schools. In other words, the very population with the greatest potential to benefit from universal preschool has the least access to the kind of high-quality programming that could change lives.

In terms of improving children's outcomes through education, there's been no experiment more successful than the highly targeted approaches of the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which served low-income black children and their families during the 1960s and 1970s. The Abecedarian Project offered high-quality individualized education to children starting at infancy, when brain development is at its peak, while the Perry Project provided similar services starting at age three, in addition to in-home parental coaching and wrap-around services to families — a nod to the notion that family care is a vital ingredient to any program seeking to improve child welfare. Economist James Heckman, a winner of the Nobel Prize, found that the programs delivered lifelong benefits for these children, with an impressive 13% per-child, per-year gain from improved health, education, and professional outcomes. Recent research by Heckman and others also revealed that the children of those who participated in these programs exhibited improved outcomes, suggesting that investment in early childhood education can help unlock intergenerational economic opportunity with a cost-effectiveness unmatched by nearly any other anti-poverty intervention.

There's every reason in the world to seek to replicate these investments through public spending, private funding, or some combination thereof. And given the potential for such dramatic lifelong gains, even a cost of $50,000 per child would pale in comparison to the future benefits. But that's not what Democrats are proposing to do; instead, they conflate the outcomes of these targeted programs with the effects of a universal one — something Heckman does not mince words about, calling it "a political ploy."

By making programs free for middle- and upper-income parents who would have otherwise paid for them, universal preschool dilutes resources that could be used to fund intensive early childhood programs for the poor at no cost to them. A study of Washington, D.C.'s universal-preschool program found that nearly half of its enrollees would have enrolled in private preschool had it not been for the publicly funded option. At $19,463 per child per year — the running cost of D.C.'s program — this is a steep price to pay to duplicate private efforts while generating questionable outcomes.

The Democrats' argument for universality extends beyond universal access to the possibility of a universal provider: the government. Though there's much to take issue with in the current system, one prominent benefit is the diversity of providers available. Today, the early childhood space operates much like a school-choice or voucher system, wherein low-income families can receive block-grant funding and middle-income families can use the CDCTC to help pay for the child-care services of their choosing. This allows parents to select from among a wide variety of paid-care arrangements, including traditional daycare, in-home care, faith-based providers, providers with non-traditional hours, and others. Surveys show that parents value this choice: A January 2020 poll found that, among parents who said they were using their ideal child-care arrangement, 34% favored parent-provided care, while 10% favored care provided by other relatives. But in the quest for universality, Democrats want to change all that.

The road to a universal government provider is most obvious with the potential for preschool to be added to the public K-12 system, but the shift is happening in more subtle ways as well. It can be seen in strengthened prerequisites for child-care providers, mandates for higher pay, and extensive state-based regulations. Such restrictions are most likely to squeeze out smaller in-home and non-traditional providers, which have already been closing their doors at a rapid pace in recent years.

Since public providers can be subsidized with taxpayer dollars, a public solution is likely to further crowd out private ones, thereby reducing parental choice. One-size-fits-all care solutions haven't worked out well when other options are removed: Quebec's universal child-care program, for instance, has been associated with negative outcomes for children on a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, including increased aggression, reduced motor skills, higher rates of physical illness, and strained familial relations. Our public K-12 system is producing questionable results as it is; we shouldn't be tacking additional years onto that system without first demonstrating that we can make measurable improvements in outcomes for the children these schools already serve.

The left's desire for universality extends to other areas of family policy as well, most notably in their proposals for paid leave. Behind closed doors, some paid-leave advocates have admitted that they fight against proposals for parental paid leave when the measures don't include paid leave for a much broader set of uses, including medical and family caregiving (with loose definitions attached to the term "family").

Like supporters of universal preschool, these advocates conflate the benefits of more targeted programs with universal ones, shortchanging the people who need the most help. A review of the paid-leave literature by the American Enterprise Institute/Brookings Working Group on Paid Family Leave found that the vast majority of evidence about the benefits of public paid-leave programs is specific to parental leave. This research shows the tremendous societal benefits of having a robust parental-leave program, but it says little about the outcomes of offering paid leave for other purposes.

Internationally, too, the most generous paid-leave programs are exclusively for parental leave — and maternity leave, at that — with nothing approaching the comprehensive leave package U.S. lawmakers are now debating. These distinctions reflect the recognition that the months following a child's birth are a unique time, worthy of generous and differentiated public investment.

Instead, Democrats have insisted on treating all types of leave the same, equating a family member caring for a distant relative with a mother caring for her newborn. Their misguided quest for universality recently led them to reduce their paid-leave proposal to four weeks for new parents — well before a mother is scheduled for a wellness check or an infant would be accepted into daycare.

Not only are the benefits of universal programs questionable, they come at a steep cost. Democrats have proposed to pay for universal preschool (estimated to cost the federal government $109 billion over six years), four weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers per year (estimated to cost $205 billion), and child-care offsets for nearly all families (estimated to cost close to $1 trillion once budget gimmicks are omitted) with higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Yet over the long term, according to the Congressional Budget Office, as much as a quarter of the corporate-tax incidence is borne by workers. It's hard to imagine many single-parent workers being thrilled about offsetting the cost of universal preschool for married millionaires' children. And while a higher tax on the wealthiest Americans could help pay for such priorities, these individuals are not an endless source of tax revenue. At some point, their taxes will need to be put toward our debt obligations, which are already the size of our entire economy. It's dishonest to continue the charade that workers can receive further benefits with no reduction in their take-home pay, or that increasingly generous programs will not add to the historic debt accumulating at their expense.

THE LIMITS OF A CHILD ALLOWANCE

Until the last decade, Republicans' family policy (to the extent it can even be called such) consisted of promoting pro-growth economic policies and limited government. The idea was that a broad base of prosperity would lift all boats and maximize family choice. Though such contentions are not wrong, they are at best incomplete, and their ability to address the acute and mounting pressures facing families in recent years has worn thin.

While the party's base is more willing to spend money to support families than it once was, a broad hesitancy to address the issues facing parents persists among Republican lawmakers. The GOP is also plagued with its own universality problem: Whereas Democrats' desire for universality presents as a quest to provide access to all Americans irrespective of need, Republicans' universality concerns present as a reluctance to tip the scales against any specific work or family arrangement. Given that policies like paid parental leave and child care accrue only to working parents, some lawmakers worry that offering support to this population puts parents who choose to stay home and supply child care themselves at a disadvantage. This concern has steered Republicans in Congress away from addressing family-related challenges directly, if at all.

To the extent that there has been broad agreement among Republican lawmakers on family policy, it has coalesced around the Child Tax Credit (CTC) — a benefit granted to taxpayers for each qualifying dependent child. In 2017, a Republican-led Congress doubled the CTC from $1,000 per child, per family, to $2,000 per child under the age of 17 ($1,400 for low-income families). An expanded CTC also appears in the reconciliation package currently under consideration in Congress.

At root, the CTC represents a blank check to American families irrespective of their situation or needs. Its greatest benefit is that it can be used for anything — child-care costs, food, clothing, school supplies, paid leave — in fact, it need not be spent on children at all. Because of its broad application, supporters can claim to address a host of issues with a single solution.

But conservative supporters have tended to oversell the benefits that can accrue from this relatively limited sum. A minimum-wage-earning single mother who uses the credit to finance six weeks of paid leave after giving birth will have nothing left over for child-care expenses, which average out to over $15,000 for infants. This means she is likely to leave the labor force entirely or, if she remains employed, to place her child in substandard care. While the CTC can offer some measure of relief, it is unlikely to open up additional opportunities or choices. This leaves many of the aforementioned challenges unaddressed, as well as open to an alternative answer from the left.

Without an easily identifiable incentive to point to, the CTC's supporters often pivot to its macroeconomic benefits. But this is akin to arguing that sending out a stimulus check to families would boost GDP — it may do so in the short run, but unless it is put to productive use and paid for, it won't do so in the long term. And if economic growth is the goal, why limit payments to parents with children?

Others have rightfully pointed out that the CTC has resulted in dramatic declines in child poverty. Robert Orr of the Niskanen Center calculated that the Republicans' CTC expansion brought more than 750,000 individuals out of poverty in 2018, half of which were children — a true policy victory. But this doesn't explain why the credit continues all the way up the income spectrum: The poverty line for a family with two children is $25,000, but the CTC doesn't begin to phase out until family income surpasses $400,000. And if combatting poverty is the goal, it raises the question of why the CTC is smallest for our neediest families, many of whom are ineligible for the credit entirely.

To meaningfully address the challenges facing American parents, the size of the credit would need to be much larger, as well as more accessible to low-income families, than it is now. Republican lawmakers are starting to move in that direction. Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a child allowance equal to $4,200 per child under age six ($350 per month) and $3,000 per child ages six to 17 ($250 per month). His allowance would be fully refundable, meaning that it would benefit low-income families as much as middle-class families, and would be delivered monthly — a necessity for parents who live paycheck to paycheck.

At that size, the CTC would change the issue set facing a family. Those with multiple children could receive up to $1,250 per month, or $15,000 per year, meaning that a single mother earning $40,000 annually could shift to part-time work to raise her children and still bring in close to the same take-home pay. Her child-care costs would be cut nearly in half.

Senator Romney should be applauded for putting forward an innovative family policy — something that's eluded many of his conservative colleagues. But his proposal raises several concerns. Most fundamentally, in a time of limited resources, it's unclear why nearly every American family with children should be receiving a large government payment: The credit wouldn't fully phase out until a married household hits nearly $500,000 in income, meaning that a high-income family could be receiving monthly deposits of $1,000 or more from Uncle Sam. Yet if the credit were more tightly targeted by income, paying low-income families up to $15,000 each year — a large share of their household income — could induce a whole range of unintended consequences. In essence, the credit would serve as a universal basic income with a critical difference: It would not continue indefinitely. This could create perverse incentives for low-income parents to scale back employment when their children are young only to have the government support disappear later on, leaving them with limited ability to reconnect to the labor force and facing significant wage penalties if they do so.

A credit this size is also incredibly expensive — in fact, its cost is on par with any Democratic approach. To his credit, Romney pays for his plan by eliminating several other programs, including the CDCTC, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, state and local tax deductions, and more. His strategy is superior to the Republicans' financing of their 2017 expansion of the CTC through deficit spending, to say nothing of the Democrats' reflexive reach for higher taxes. But in doing so, some of the important elements of existing programs would be lost, such as the work incentive tied to the Earned Income Tax Credit — one of the most effective anti-poverty programs we have available.

Finally, the Romney plan fails to address the fact that our current share of expenditures on children is relatively small and shrinking: According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, less than a tenth of federal spending in 2016 was devoted to children, while more than a third was spent on the elderly. We should be seeking to correct this imbalance instead of repurposing a shrinking share of the pie.

This latter problem is emblematic of most other proposals on the right, which generally involve reshuffling existing family programs. To be sure, some of the increased flexibility inherent to these plans makes sense — allowing families to frontload their access to CTC benefits while children are young, for instance, is a no-lose proposition that has attracted bipartisan support from lawmakers like senators Bill Cassidy and Kyrsten Sinema. But in other ways, they are unnecessarily limiting. One Republican proposal involves allowing parents to trade part of their future Social Security benefits for paid leave following the birth of a child. This may be elegant from a fiscal perspective, since it minimizes additional expenses. But if the goal is to ensure that every infant can spend its first weeks of life with one or both parents, policymakers should be encouraging take-up of the benefit, not discouraging it. Requiring parents to dip into their retirement safety net to spend time with their newborn child does the latter while doing nothing to address the job protections these mothers and fathers lack. As a country, we've decided that it's in our collective interest to help people maintain a stable living situation during retirement; it's hard to argue that doing so is any less important than ensuring infants are born into stable living situations.

Other proposals on the right are more limited still. They include setting up tax-advantaged savings accounts to be used for pregnancy and child-care expenses or paid leave, as well as providing tax credits to companies that offer paid family leave or child-care centers on site, despite limited evidence such credits expand family-policy offerings. While these policies have the advantage of being cost-effective, they would not raise the share of federal social spending devoted to early childhood care. They would also provide limited support to the neediest of families, who would not benefit from non-refundable tax credits or tax-advantaged accounts.

Republicans don't have to tie themselves in knots like this. It's okay to support apprenticeships even though not everyone will become an apprentice. It's okay to support health savings accounts even though not everyone will have one. And it's okay to support the acute needs of child care and paid leave even if all parents do not benefit from such programs. The sooner Republicans recognize this, the better off the party — and the country — will be.

DEFINING THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

Republicans need a fresh framework for thinking about family policy. Rather than pushing the one-size-fits-all approach or pitting parents who work full time against those who stay home, lawmakers should treat early childhood investment as a continuum that seeks to address the evolving needs of families as infants grow into toddlers and beyond.

A cornerstone of any family policy should be to protect the time immediately following a child's birth. Here, the evidence is unequivocal about the need for reform. The weeks after birth are when the risk of neonatal fatalities is the highest — and America has one of the highest such rates in the developed world. They represent a time when breastfeeding begins, when a woman's body heals from childbirth, and when critical parental attachment is formed. The literature on childhood development overwhelmingly highlights the importance of parents being present and engaged in the earliest weeks and months of a child's life, and yet the status quo makes it very difficult for mothers and fathers to spend this critical time healing, adjusting, and bonding with their newborn.

America is the only developed country that does not provide paid parental leave. As a result, only 25% of workers have access to such leave from their employers. Economist Christopher Ruhm estimates that 10 extra weeks of paid parental leave would reduce neonatal deaths by as much as 2.9%, saving hundreds of infants' lives each year. Another study found that paid-leave programs like California's, which provides eight weeks of partially paid leave for new parents, significantly reduced parents' reliance on welfare and food stamps. Mothers with access to paid leave are also more likely to return to their jobs — and with higher wages — than those without, offering their families more financial independence as their children grow.

While some conservatives have raised concerns about a paid-parental-leave program negatively affecting women's professional advancement, this has only become a problem in periods of leave lasting nearly a year or more. Others worry that paid leave will raise costs on low-income workers, but Angela Rachidi and I have found that in fact, low-income workers have seen the greatest gains from such programs. Others still have expressed concern about crowding out employer policies, yet a minority of workers have access to such benefits as it is. It should be the birthright of all American children — whether planned or unplanned, born into a high- or low-income household — to spend their first weeks of life with their mother and father without their parents' experiencing unnecessary financial or employment-related stress.

In the months and years that follow, the majority of parents will come to rely on child-care providers outside the home. A smaller, though not insignificant share will forgo income to provide child care themselves. While nearly all families will face challenges in adding child-care-related expenses to their budget or adjusting to the loss of income, these challenges will be particularly acute for low-income and single-parent families, for whom the alternative to work is public assistance, financial instability, or putting their children in low-quality child care.

Conservatives, therefore, should offer disadvantaged families the greatest level of support while maximizing parental choice in child-care arrangements. To do so, lawmakers should expand the existing CDCTC and experiment with how to advance the payments monthly instead of at the end of the year. These credits can be thought of as a school-choice program for early childhood care: Just as parents using education vouchers can choose to send their children to a variety of schools, parents who need care for their children outside the home should be able to use the CDCTC to help pay for a nanny or center-based care, whether full time, part time, or something in between.

An expanded CDCTC would allow different types of programs to proliferate in response to parental preferences. It would also negate the need for a universal public program. Making the credit refundable would benefit low-income families, for whom caring for a child poses a barrier to work and high-quality care outside the home is financially prohibitive. Ideally, the credit would be the largest for low-income families and phase down from there.

There are four advantages to this approach relative to the ones discussed above. The first is that, while offsetting child-care costs directly would result in a narrower range of choices than the CTC, it would still give parents the flexibility to choose a provider that best fits their needs and values — something far superior to a program involving a universal government provider.

Second, by linking payments to income, an expanded CDCTC would help sidestep fears that such a policy would unduly push parents into the labor force. The reality is that, at the low end of the income distribution, all parents in the household must work in order for the family to be financially independent. Offsetting child-care costs wouldn't push these parents into the labor force; instead, it would ensure that their children can have access to higher-quality care. It would also boost family income, which could allow parents to scale back their work hours and spend more time with their children while maintaining their connection to the labor force — a necessity for preserving low-income households' financial independence over the long run. Enhancing wages through subsidies like the Earned Income Tax Credit would also allow parents to spend more time at home while helping to ensure that at least one parent remains attached to the labor force.

Third, by offering the largest payment to the most at-risk families, we would create the greatest potential for improvements in children's outcomes. This has implications not only for the families directly affected, but for society at large. As Heckman discovered, investing in the development of at-risk young children is one of the most effective strategies we have for generating economic growth. In his words, "short-term costs are more than offset by the immediate and long-term benefits," which include "reduction in the need for special education and remediation, better health outcomes, reduced need for social services, lower criminal justice costs and increased self-sufficiency and productivity among families."

Finally, expanding the credit would negate the need for many of our existing child-care programs, helping to streamline our system. Likewise, substantially increasing the amount of the CDCTC and making it refundable would reduce our need to rely on the Child Care and Development Fund and employer-sponsored tax credits, making child-care support available regardless of state or employer policies.

Any child-care costs offset by the CDCTC expansion should be paired with efforts to increase the supply of providers, lest government support for child care further drive up costs — an effect that's limited somewhat by concentrating the largest subsidies on a relatively narrow population. In this vein, lawmakers should eliminate regulations that limit child care without directly improving its quality. As an alternative to degree requirements and wage mandates, officials should consider implementing apprenticeships and vocational training for care providers, which improves their skills and wages without decreasing their supply.

There are plenty more pro-family reforms that conservatives are naturally suited to champion. For example, the most successful early-childhood-care programs are those paired with a significant family component, such as in-home visits and parental coaching, yet little has been done to explore such options. Whether it's boxes of necessities given to new parents in hospitals, home visits for new mothers by nurses or counselors, or efforts aimed at building new civil-society institutions in the neighborhoods where families are embedded, there are any number of ways to create safer, healthier, more stimulating environments for young children that are ripe for lawmakers' exploration.

While Washington can take significant steps toward alleviating some of the pressure on working families, broader cultural issues of consumption, school schedules and activities, family structures, and workplace expectations also put undue pressure on parents that go well beyond public policy. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argues against what she calls "greedy jobs" — employers that demand increasingly long and inflexible hours from employees with little consideration for family responsibilities. These jobs tend to force an extreme division of labor between work and family within a household, with fathers missing out on critical time with children and mothers missing out on workplace engagement. A Gallup survey of stay-at-home mothers found that lack of flexible hours and remote work were major driving factors behind their decision not to re-engage in the labor force.

Wherever possible, employers should seek to increase workplace flexibility and predictable scheduling, or expand options for remote work, to accommodate parents. After all, employees don't remain parents of young children forever; relative to a 40- or 50-year career trajectory, this limited number of years is worthy of short-term investment. It's in all of our interests to have a rising generation tended to by parents who can be present and involved in their children's lives.

In all of these approaches to family policy, a more targeted focus reduces the costs relative to universal programs, which should matter to fiscal conservatives. That said, the cost is unlikely to be zero. Nor should it be, if we are seeking to make meaningful investments in the future of American families. Conservatives eager to differentiate their approach from Democrats' prolific spending efforts should do so not by blocking marginal programs that would deliver significant benefits for families, but by helping to pay down the trillions in debt obligations that will limit future growth and opportunity for generations of children to come. A rightsizing of existing entitlement programs, including means-testing benefits in retirement, would allow for more than enough resources to cover family investment and help reconcile the glaring imbalance of benefits between the young and the elderly.

PROSPECTS FOR FAMILY POLICY

Each political season takes on a flavor of its own, driven by underlying internal pressures in addition to external events. Generational shifts in the nature of care, family, and work, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, have catapulted the need for family-policy reform to the forefront of our age.

Few issues are more important than those related to the American family. Academic research overwhelmingly suggests that what happens in a child's first five years has lifetime implications for his well-being. Meanwhile, the workforce-related decisions a mother makes while her child is young will have lifetime implications for her earning potential and her family's financial independence.

The left's universal solutions to child-care and family-related challenges may be the wrong approach, but there's plenty of fertile policy ground for conservatives to cultivate. Republican lawmakers can provide more options that encourage parents to stay home during the early months of life, where the evidence is unequivocal about the importance of parental involvement. They can provide more choices for parents to bridge the gap between care and work following this time, maximizing parental choice in child-care providers and targeting the greatest levels of support at those families for whom high-quality care is most out of reach. Understandably, there is a desire to not tilt the scales against parents who stay at home with their children. Yet this concern should not be used to stymie reforms that would benefit the vast majority of American families.

Republicans have long been reluctant to tackle family policy. The good news is that they have a large — and mostly blank — canvas to paint on. It's time for the GOP to put forward a compelling policy vision that would meaningfully change the lives of young children, parents, and families, to the benefit of us all.

Abby M. McCloskey is an economist and political commentator. She is also the founder of McCloskey Policy LLC.


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