We live in a diverse country, where people have a lot of different preferences about how to live. For example, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of Americans believed children with two parents were better off if one parent stayed at home, but 39% thought children were just as well off if both parents worked.
So which side was right? Well, obviously, neither. It depends on the personality, values and circumstances of the people in each particular family. Despite what Tolstoy wrote, happy families are in fact all happy in their own ways.
Our debates about family structure have been poisoned by people who can’t acknowledge difference without immediately rendering some judgment. Family pluralism is a source of strength for this country, not a weakness.
It should be said that people’s views on what is the ideal family form are powerfully linked to their class standing. As research by scholars at the American Compass think tank has shown, people in the working class and to a lesser extent the middle class are more likely to prefer the “breadwinner” model, in which one parent stays home, when children are younger than 5. Families making more than $150,000 are more likely to admire the “dual earner” model, in which both parents work.
The crucial question is this: In a society with such a diverse array of family forms, which kind of family structure should the government favor? My answer is, “None.” The role of government is to help people build the kind of family they prefer, not tell them what kind of family they should prefer. Government should be neutral about what kind of family is best.
President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan has one element that beautifully accomplishes this, by extending the child tax credit, or child allowance. If parents want to use the extra money from the credit to help pay for day care, they can. If they want to use it to reduce work hours time so they can spend more time at home, they can. The child tax credit will help millions of families do what surveys show they already want to do — have more kids than they can now afford, and spend more time at home.
But the Biden administration is not entirely neutral when it comes to family policy. When, during a conference call, I asked three administration officials Thursday about this, they mentioned two other social goals. First, getting people working. “We want parents to be in the workforce, especially mothers,” said Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council. Second, the administration wants kids in classroom settings, to extend the public school system down two years. The administration is aggressively expanding child care subsidies and pre-K programs.
These are understandable public goals, but I wonder about the emphasis. In the first place, direct parental subsidies — perhaps because they let parents cut back on work and cultivate their kids’ social and emotional skills — can be a powerful tool to boost kids’ educational attainment.
As Grover J. Whitehurst, formerly of the Brookings Institution, once put it, “It turns out that putting money directly into the pockets of low-income parents, as many other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than does a year of preschool or participation in Head Start.”
Second, when it comes to parenting there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Whether a child will be helped or harmed by professional child care experience depends an awful lot on the nature of the particular child, the particular care center and the particular parents. These are circumstances only the parents, who are right there, can know, so parents should be given maximum power and flexibility to make decisions.
The way to do that, the family scholar W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia argues, is to focus money on direct subsidies and go big.
“Because the Biden administration is trying to be all things to all people,” Wilcox emailed me, “it partially funds a number of initiatives, including the child allowance. I’d much rather see the administration cut out the money promised for pre-K and child care and fully fund a generous child allowance.”
Finally, I worry about the class politics of all this. In that American Compass research, more-affluent families support day care expansion but working-class families overwhelmingly support direct subsidies. Thriving meritocrats may be eager to reenjoy the satisfactions of full-time work, but in one 2018 survey only 28% of married mothers said working full time was ideal. Forty percent said working part time was ideal.
We are living in a time of huge economic and educational inequalities, and seething populist resentments as a result. I worry that the upper middle class will be inviting a furious backlash if it is seen to be privileging its parenting preferences through the use of state power.
Over the past few decades the economy has placed enormous strain on American families, forcing people to have fewer kids and spend less time with them than they would prefer. A fully generous child tax credit would give some parents a chance to step back from the job market for a few years while their kids were young — if they so chose.
The opportunity to drastically improve American family life is suddenly right before us.
David Brooks writes a syndicated column for the New York Times.