Despite the very real economic gains most Americans have begun to make under the helpful policies of President Trump, working families remain in a state of crisis both financially and socially.
For decades, wages have stayed largely stagnant, while the cost of living has increased dramatically, especially for parents, forcing both parents into the workforce by necessity in order to put food on the table and a roof over their head.
Additionally, the ever-growing costs of childcare plus the increasing cultural stigmatization of parenthood have led to a predictable result: fewer Americans are getting married and having children than ever before.
For conservatives, and indeed for all Americans, this trend ought to be viewed as the proverbial canary in the coal mine signaling impending doom.
Healthy families are the foundation of our society, and so many of our present social ills can be traced to the breakdown of the family which has accelerated in recent years. Unfortunately, many government policies have all too often had the effect of encouraging this breakdown, despite the best of intentions among those politicians who promote them.
It’s long past time for conservatives to take a leadership role in tackling this crisis. Fortunately, they have begun to do just that in one important area: paid family leave.
While it has long been a cause championed almost exclusively by progressives, paid family leave has been getting a boost from a number of conservative Republicans as of late. Foremost among them has been President Trump, who notably called for a national paid family leave plan in this year’s State of the Union address, as well as his daughter Ivanka who has been a consistent proponent of the effort.
In Congress, multiple conservative proposals for paid family leave have been introduced, including the New Parents Act, introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), the CRADLE Act, introduced by Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and the Working Families Flexibility Act, also introduced by Senator Lee as well as Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.)
What all these ideas have in common is a commitment to helping new parents in a responsible way – by applying conservative principles to a pressing problem. None of these plans would create a new tax or entitlement, both of which would be counterproductive.
Rather, all of these proposals would reorient the current system to better serve new parents, allowing them the financial flexibility necessary to spend time with their newborns and hopefully encouraging more parents to have children.
Some on the Right have criticized fellow conservatives for this effort, wary of any additional government intervention in social policy, arguing that making such tweaks won’t alone be enough to solve the family crisis. And while these concerns certainly have some merit, it is difficult to see what alternative there is.
Although paid family leave is of course only one small step toward helping reverse the anti-family trends of recent decades, it is a step nonetheless. If conservatives are to rebuild a culture of healthy families in America, it will in all likelihood be through gradual strides such as this.
A number of other countries have taken similar steps to address falling birth rates and lack of family formation.
One nation has seen great success from their programs in just a few short years — Hungary.
In just under a decade, Hungary has seen its marriage rate increase by 43 percent and its divorce rate drop by 22 percent. As a result of more women being married and having a supportive partner, the abortion rate has also fallen by more than 30 percent. Meanwhile, the birth rate in Hungary is the highest in all of Eastern Europe in at least the past 20 years.
What has Hungary done to achieve this? They’ve made two big-picture changes: strengthening religious institutions in order to provide education to children, and reorienting their economic system toward families. By providing economic incentives such as abolishing federal income taxes for any mother who has four or more children and offering housing grants that scale up based on the amount of children a family has, Hungary has reversed what could only be described as a crisis of underpopulation — and their country is now booming like never before.
By contrast, the American economic system has largely been geared toward business. For example, businesses in America get tax advantages that are not available to working families, such as deducting accelerated depreciation for their capital expenses, write-offs for the costs of training employees, and even green energy tax credits.
In fact, businesses are so advantaged by this system that many of the largest companies in America, such as Amazon, Chevron, General Motors, Delta, Halliburton and IBM, all paid $0 or LESS — meaning they got tax refunds — in federal income taxes. How do we explain this phenomenon to young men graduating college with $100,000 or more in student loan debt who can’t afford to buy an engagement ring, let alone afford a down payment on a home?
While American families are offered some incentives for family formation, such as child tax credits, getting married and having children makes a lot less sense now than it did 20 years ago — or even 10 years ago. Americans have found themselves in what Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) once called the “Two-Income Trap”, where both parents have to work in order to afford their home and the basic necessities for raising a family. Meanwhile, children in these families miss out on critical quality time with their parents.
Conservatives are by default the pro-family party — the Democrats are forced to forfeit here due to their love of late-term abortion and puberty-blocking transgender drugs for six-year-olds — but a pro-family economic agenda has been missing from the Republican Party’s top policy priorities for far too long.
By promoting and advancing a plan for paid family leave, we may finally begin to rectify that, laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive movement to address the present crisis of the family. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste.
Terry Schilling (@PizzaPolitico) is the executive director of American Principles Project, a conservative advocacy group in Washington, DC dedicated to advancing human dignity through public policy.