In their smart and fun new book, Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam urge Republicans to spend trillions of dollars on policies to shore up working-class families. Several critics have pointed out that the Republican Party will likely remain much more interested in spending trillions of dollars on tax breaks for rich people. What's been less noticed is that Democrats could easily adopt much of the family agenda Douthat and Salam propose--and that, more than his opponent, Barack Obama already has.
First, some context. According to the authors, "The most important thing to understand about today's stratification--economic, social, and cultural--is that it starts at home, where working-class Americans are far less likely than their better-educated peers to enjoy the benefits that flow from stable families." This sort of claim, that family instability is the main cause of inequality today, recurs throughout the book, and it is too broad. The authors cite economist Gary Burtless, but he actually says that changes in family patterns are no more than half as important as changes in earnings patterns to rising household inequality.
But while family structure isn't the most important factor, it is important. The authors are right that young people raised outside marriage are at higher risk of dropping out of high school or college, failing to land a steady job, and ending up poor. These conclusions are supported by the work of an array of sociologists, economists, and policy wonks. While it's impossible to know how marriage would have affected a child whose parents in fact weren't married, these results tend to stick even with controls for family background and income.
Many liberals gave Pat Moynihan grief 40 years ago for linking family structure to African American poverty, and that unease remains. The authors chalk it up to resistance to "moralism in public policy," but that's only part of the story. Conservative moralism has often stressed restraining sexuality rather than helping children. It has regularly fed heavy-handed mandates and crude exclusions, with perverse consequences for complicated families. Conservatives continue to push abstinence-only sex education, in spite of clear evidence it doesn't work. Many on the right still seek to reinstate highly restrictive divorce laws that will stop breakups both good and bad. Lately John McCain has cited "family values," and not much else, to justify his opposition to adoption by gay parents, ignoring the cruel impact on thousands of legal orphans.
Liberals resist this sort of thing--and so, it seems, do Douthat and Salam. The authors reason from the interests of families, not the value of tradition. In their relatively brief policy-proposal section, they suggest that Republicans "stigmatize illegitimacy indirectly" by offering big tax benefits only to parents who are married, but they admit this is probably "politically unrealistic" in the short-run. The authors don't even go in for kinder, gentler prodding, like George Bush's education programs aimed at promoting marriage.
Douthat and Salam instead urge today's Republicans to adopt two big-ticket items for the family. The first is a five-fold expansion of the child tax credit, made available down the income scale because it would be refundable against the payroll tax. The second, aimed largely at making more poor men more "marriageable," is a massive wage subsidy for low-income workers. Both would be available regardless of whether people are married, divorced, or single. Together, the two could easily cost more than the Bush tax cuts. In other words, Douthat and Salam want Republicans to throw money at the problem of family breakdown.
So the authors' proposals end up looking a lot like ideas that many progressives have passed around for years. In 2000, two separate sets of analysts, one at Harvard and one at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote papers about the "middle-class parent penalty" and proposed tax relief in response. As to the wage subsidy, America already has one that liberals love: the Earned Income Tax Credit. Progressive economists have pressed the expansion of EITC benefits to childless workers, who qualify for only paltry benefits under current law. They have also proposed to reduce the large marriage penalty that the EITC often imposes on the poor, a perversity that goes oddly unmentioned in the book.
Neither presidential candidate has fully embraced these ideas, but one comes a lot closer. More than half of McCain's tax cuts are for corporations (and hence the holders of capital); another big chunk is for upper-income taxpayers, through repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax. There is one break for most families--the expansion of the dependent exemption--but that proposal is worth more than twice as much to a millionaire as to a median family, and because it is not refundable, it is worth nothing to poor families and little to many in the working-class. By contrast, Obama would offer two tax breaks that benefit low-wage workers: the expansion of the EITC and a $500 per worker credit against payroll taxes. And he also cuts the EITC marriage penalty. According to the Tax Policy Center, Obama's tax plans are better than McCain's for the bottom 80 percent of families with children, and vastly superior for the bottom 40 percent.
Obama begins to connect private virtues and social structures in the way Douthat and Salam do. Where McCain mechanically invokes "family values," Obama concretely talks about how fathers should teach their children excellence and empathy, how two responsible parents keep "the foundation of our country strong." Moynihan would have smiled. Marriage may be best for kids, but a father's strong involvement matters in any event.
The right mix of policies needs to be eclectic. Instead of failing abstinence-only programs, Congress should give more support to successful programs that encourage kids to defer sex but tell the truth about birth control. The jury is still out on the "marriage promotion" programs to which the Bush administration dedicates $100 million a year. As Katherine Boo beautifully captured in The New Yorker a few years ago, well-intentioned training in relationship skills and conflict resolution may be no match for real life in many communities. But Congress can make sensible improvements in these programs, like doing more to address economic strain and unplanned pregnancy, and continue funding until evaluations come back. Fatherhood initiatives, such as offering counseling and training to connect more dads with their kids, also deserve support and evaluation. Finally, given the links between time together with children and well-being for families, the country should make it a priority to guarantee both parents paid time off when they have a child, a right protected at least for women in 168 nations. With Indiana's Evan Bayh, Obama has introduced legislation on many of these issues. McCain is nowhere to be found.
Strengthening families is important, but, contrary to Douthat and Salam, it does not seem like a big political winner for either party. Jesse Jackson is hardly unique in his aversion to moral instruction from presidential candidates. Conservative politicians have scored points on "family values" mostly by bashing gay people and opposing abortion, not by telling Joe and Nancy Sixpack to get marriage counseling. Even the exception proves the rule: As Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee made a splash by offering a "covenant marriage" option, where couples could opt into a fault-based divorce system. But fewer than two percent of couples signed up, and in his presidential run, Huckabee rarely talked about it.
Obama is better positioned than the Republicans Douthat and Salam are addressing--and most other politicians--to talk about families. He can push fatherhood in part because he is an African American dad pushing back against a stereotype about black fathers. Raised mostly by his strong mother and grandparents, he naturally avoids the harsh tone toward single parents at which most Americans recoil. You will not catch him saying government should "stigmatize illegitimacy."
Obama likely understands both the need to address family structure and the need to do it gently. Unlike, say, health care or energy, family is something government can properly influence only on the margin. The subject calls for the sorts of modest policies promoted in Grand New Party. Douthat and Salam believe that Democrats, caught up in Sixties-style relativism, won't go for it. But they are probably wrong. Barack Obama may even prove it.
Robert Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.