Family policy brings into focus the importance of direct, government-driven measures ordered to achieve outcomes in accordance with the common good. For too many years in the United States, however, family policy has, in effect, been caught in the middle between Republican Party libertarianism and Democratic Party welfarism—both out of step with the broad wishes of the American public to make childbearing more affordable.
Republicans in particular have tended to combine polarizing rhetoric on abortion with halting, primarily indirect methods of fostering family formation. Democrats, by contrast, have favored limited forms of welfare payments (e.g., family leave or childcare support), combined with other rhetoric and policies more hostile to family formation. Together they have mimicked what Nancy Fraser has called the “reactionary neoliberal” and “progressive neoliberal” approaches to American policy.1 Each side talks a good game but offers limited, primarily indirect measures for supporting families.
The primacy of abortion politics obscures the widespread appetite for national policies to foster family formation as well as the vocation of child-rearing.2 Since the matter of abortion shows no signs of undergoing fundamental change, Republicans in particular should consider firmer state support for families. While Republicans profess to be in favor of traditional rather than progressive family structures, it is Democrats who have proposed the most robust recent forms of state support for family formation. Yet Democratic rhetoric that denigrates traditional family structures undermines their credibility on this point with Republican voters. The result is a situation of considerable political flux, in which policy entrepreneurs, particularly on the right, could make considerable strides.
Polling shows that many American women are having fewer children than what they would consider ideal, and only around 4 or 5 percent of the population does not want to have any children at all—a number that has been consistent since 1990. As Lyman Stone has recently put it, “women report greater childbearing ambitions than they have achieved or are likely to achieve, and this has been the case for a long time.”3 Additional research shows that financial concerns are often the main obstacle to family formation,4 and more ambitious responses to these issues should be considered.