Raising a family has always been challenging, but contemporary family life in America suffers from structural problems that previous generations never faced. These problems are, largely but not entirely, the result of social and economic changes that have occurred over the last 100-150 years. As the United States has ceased to be an agriculturally based society, children have lost their economic status as a “production good.” Even on modern farms, technology has changed the relationship children once had with farm labor. The impact of this social and economic change has been profound. Once a reliable source of income for their family—thanks to their role in farm work and other occupations of the pre-information-age economy—children today, considered in cold, economic terms, only offer substantial “returns,” generally speaking, after reaching maturity, and completing years of higher education. Today’s growing families, in short, face fundamental hurdles on account of 21st-century life—hurdles that once were either negligible or nonexistent. “The stakes may be higher for new parents than in previous generations,” as USA Today reported in February 2018, “thanks to a combination of changing demographics and economic pressures.”
Sounding a similar note for last year’s May/June issue of The American Conservative, Charles Fain Lehman wrote an article titled “Reversing the Baby Bust,” in which he looked at some of the more prominent challenges besetting the modern American family. Among other topics, he cited and discussed the above economic and social trend. But Mr. Lehman and the writers of USA Today are only two among many voices now putting focus on this problem. Proposed solutions to the modern West’s family crisis have been offered by American political leaders like Marco Rubio, Ann Wagner, and Ivanka Trump, and enacted by countries like Poland and Hungary. Supporting healthy and well-adjusted family units is becoming a renewed focus of policymakers both at home and internationally.
While social changes are partially to blame, many of the wounds that modern families bear are inflicted by bad policy. On account of the U.S. tax code, marriage itself has become an economic liability for working-class people. As Institute for Family Studies research fellow Lyman Stone described in his testimony to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee on September 10 of last year, the implied “policy stance of the tax code, of our welfare programs, of almost everything the government does” is that “working-class people should not get married, but middle-class and wealthy people should.” In fact, for those enrolled in the IRS’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, simply getting married can reduce one’s tax benefit by several thousand dollars. This “marriage penalty,” as Stone phrases it, is drastic enough to eliminate 15 percent—or even 25 percent—of a family’s income. The practical effect of this is to discourage marriage among the very demographic that, arguably, most depends on family stability for its very survival.
The American tax code is so out of whack that merely getting married can vaporize one quarter of a household’s income. Although marriage as an institution might not be quite as dilapidated as some think—the notion that “50% of all marriages end in divorce” being an example of a popular misconception, as Renée Peltz Dennison discussed in Psychology Today in 2017—it is still “no mystery,” as Stone says, “why working-class Americans are getting married less.” “Today’s American families face three intersecting challenges,” Lehman wrote in his American Conservative article. “The first is exorbitant child-rearing costs…The second is a child poverty rate, which, while down in recent years, remains well above the OECD norm. The third is the cratering fertility rate.” Modern times have created a “perfect storm” wherein these three stressors have simultaneously ganged up against the American family.
No longer useful for work and—thanks to Social Security—no longer needed to care for elderly parents, children in the 21st century have become, as Nobel Prize winning economist Gary S. Becker put it in a 1960 paper, a “consumption good.” Children today, in other words, benefit their parents mostly in terms of the “psychic income or satisfaction” they provide.
In today’s world, whatever joy children may otherwise bring, their benefit is not, generally speaking, measured by the dividends they bring to the bank. At least not until after their academic or trade-school education is finished, at which point, of course, they are no longer children.
Kids, to summarize, just don’t pay like they used to.
What kind of policy, then, would incentivize healthy family life, placing normality within reach for struggling Americans? To begin with, before any incentive is enacted, removing the disincentive by repairing our broken tax code would be a necessary first step. But, once that is accomplished, we have several promising examples to guide our steps.
In light of the falling birth rate affecting Western countries today, Poland and Hungary have, over the last several years, adopted a portfolio of family-supporting laws meant to better the lives of their citizens. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or “PiS” in Polish) first came to power in 2015, and was recently reelected, based largely on the popularity of its “Family 500+” program, which provides a monthly allowance of 500 złoty (roughly $125 USD) for each child a Polish family has. Originally only provided for additional children, the 500 złoty benefit is now provided beginning with a family’s first-born.
The policy has been great, if nothing else, for Poland’s international children and family-spending rankings. As Anna Louise Sussman explained in her article “The Poland Model—Promoting ‘Family Values’ With Cash Handouts,” published in The Atlantic in October 2019: “Since the early 1990s, Eastern and Central European countries have lagged behind Western European countries in spending on children and families as a share of GDP, but the Family 500+ program puts Poland on par with Germany and Norway.” Of course, the rating Sussman describes is irrelevant if it does not correspond to an actual improvement in family life or another variable. So what, exactly, does this policy accomplish on the ground?
One point in favor of the program lies simply in its great popularity. “For progressives and other PiS opponents,” Sussman says, “these programs’ popularity leave them with little room to maneuver.” PiS, in other words, has spectacularly reclaimed the family benefit territory that was historically the domain of the Left. While some have criticized Poland’s family programs for their supposed “fiscal irresponsibility,” even people who describe themselves as opponents of PiS admit the attraction of the party’s family policy. Anna Krawczak, a researcher at the University of Warsaw who also works as an “activist on behalf of fertility patients,” says that while she “would never consider voting for PiS,” she nonetheless admits that the party’s policies go “a long way” in helping her own family. In fact, she uses the Family 500+ benefits to pay for her foster children’s therapy.
Consider, also, the example of Barbara Nowacka. Ms. Nowacka, who operated the social policy campaign for a Polish left-wing coalition in 2015, admits in Sussman’s article that “this 500+ satisfies people,” and that “everyone believes that it is better to have money than trust the state.” The Polish progressives’ drive for higher investment in public childcare, schools, and hospitals loses its luster, it seems, when placed next to the PiS plan of simply rerouting tax money directly into the pockets of growing families. The Polish citizenry, apparently, feel more comfortable relying on what amounts to a tax rebate delivered under the header of the 500+ plan, than trusting the state—hardly surprising for a country that lived under communism for much of the 20th century.
The Hungarian government has also introduced policies similar to Poland’s new family programs. In 2011, the Hungarian birth rate dropped to only 1.23 births per woman, and the government decided to take action to reverse the concerning trend. In light of this, since 2015 Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has “implemented progressively more generous family benefits such as tax breaks,” and has also introduced “interest-free housing loans for young couples, and government support for buying seven-seat cars.”
The topic, however, is more complicated than these examples might imply. While Family 500+ was mainly intended to increase Poland’s unsettlingly low fertility rate—1.29 births per woman as of 2019—it has thus far, in the words of Sussman, actually “proved more effective at reducing poverty and spurring consumer spending.” As Reuters reported this October, the recent PiS victory strengthened the Polish market, and “analysts said [that] PiS’s win signaled a continuation of government policies.” If nothing else, however, this should help convince skeptics that there is a near- to mid-term economic benefit to the sort of family policies PiS has introduced, and that time should be allowed to tell, in a more thorough, comprehensive way, how these policies will help Polish families in their day-to-day life struggles. Even with the anecdotal evidence aside, after all, the economy is still getting a boost from the policy and the party supporting it.
In Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s award-winning 2011 book Poor Economics, the authors argued: “We…have to recognize that in some cases, the conditions for a market to emerge on its own are simply not there….It often ends up being cheaper, per person served, to distribute a service for free than to try to extract a nominal fee.” Banerjee and Duflo made this statement with respect to the main subject of their book—how to understand the economic conditions in poor nations and encourage economic development. By no means dismissive of the free market (the authors in fact dedicate much of their book to the impact of microcredit and small businesses in the developing world) they nonetheless reach the conclusion that, where “the conditions for a market to emerge on its own are simply not there,” it is actually more cost effective to distribute essential, life-improving goods and services that will improve the entire community and thereby, indirectly, the market itself. The market, after all, needs people in order to exist.
One example the authors use to demonstrate their argument is the child vaccination incentive program they themselves tested in Udaipur, India, and which they had previously discussed in a 2010 article in the British Medical Journal. To encourage more families to vaccinate their children, in 30 test camps two pounds of dried beans were offered per immunization as an incentive. For a completed course of immunizations, a set of stainless steel plates was offered. This incentive program, Banerjee and Duflo report, was a great success. It increased the vaccination rate sevenfold in the village where it was tested; after the program was implemented, the vaccination rate stood at 38 percent, a great improvement. As the authors explain, offering the dehydrated beans and steel plates actually lowered the overall costs involved in the vaccination program; because the nurse was paid for her time, the incentives made her labor more efficient.
What this shows, with respect to the issue of family support programs, is that the idea of incentivizing or subsidizing beneficial actions to decrease overall cost—whether monetary cost or a more difficult-to-measure social cost—is, in principle, a sound one. Those who respect the findings of Poor Economics, a book which won the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011, but who might otherwise be skeptical of the Polish and Hungarian family policies—or policies such as the one now being encouraged by Ivanka Trump—might find them more palatable to “laissez-faire” tastes if they consider the success of incentivizing constructive behavior. Even if the comparison is conjectural, it is safe to say that—whether the intention is encouraging child immunizations or strengthening the families of our citizens—sometimes people need, if not a “handout,” then at least a helping hand in the right direction. This will encourage actions that benefit the people in question, the economy, and the community at large. Recent events only bring this into sharper focus. As Republican senator Josh Hawley said on Tucker Carlson Tonight on March 19 regarding the Coronavirus crisis: “Working families need relief and they ought to get it.”
At this point, one might certainly field the argument: “Well, what if Social Security itself is part of the problem? Why not work to dismantle Social Security and the rest of the modern welfare system? Could that not help things?” Perhaps it could, but for one, it is probably fair to say that Social Security, and more fundamentally, the structure of political attitudes and programs that surround Social Security—whatever theoretical objections one might have—are not going anywhere anytime soon, if ever. Moreover, the basic shifts in the economy and technology have nothing directly to do with government intervention. That is not to say those objections to Social Security are invalid, far from it. Maybe, one day, there will come an unforeseen time when all these issues can be sorted out by private institutions—when a purist libertarian state is possible. But the social landscape of contemporary society has found us, whether we would have it or not, struggling to meet the needs of our citizens in this area of life. When viewed as a tax rebate, their supposed “incompatibility” with libertarianism or small government “conservatarianism” becomes unclear. Instead of holding out for a politically promised era that might never, and probably will never, come, we have to do what we can with the tools we have right now to help the people in front of us.
What, then, is the ultimate takeaway from this? Have the social policies of our country really been working at odds with the fundamental wellbeing of our citizens for so long?
In America, “We the People” and “One Nation Under God” are the watchwords that point us to our proper destination. If our nation does not serve the human needs of the people that inhabit it, it is failing in a truly fundamental way. If a tax code, social program, or monetary system is not benefiting “We the People,” or serving the just cause of God and nation, it is our right, as a certain document says, to “alter or abolish it.” The tendency (that shows itself regularly enough) in the economic field to detach the “bottom line” from any damage done to the community merely amounts to a crude, inhumane “ends justify the means” philosophy. Those who wish to support and revitalize the modern West, which ought to be the common goal of everyone involved in public policy today, must remind themselves that a market or society is only truly “free” when it does not enervate the lives and morals of those meant to exercise that freedom.
Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.