A Better Center-Right: The American Family Act Is One Way
It might not look like it, but a bill recently introduced by various Democratic senators could form the start of a revived social conservatism in American politics. Since Obergefell, socially conservative voters have been increasingly on the defensive, placing their faith in a Playboy president who has repaid them with actions ranging from the highly consequential (a steady stream of conservative court appointees) to the more mundane (signatures on Bibles, lip service about values). Courts are nothing to scoff at, and the judiciary could plausibly deliver their desired victories on abortion and religious freedom. Yet broad American opinion in favor of gay marriage, growing calls for nationwide LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws, and a secularizing country have clearly pushed the moral once-majority into a defensive crouch. Social conservatism is not in a moment of triumph, but largely one of stasis.
Enter the American Family Act of 2019, which expands the refundable tax credit for countless parents and thus effectively gives working and middle-class families an allowance for every child. The proposed legislation would return $300 a month to parents for each child below the age of 6, and $250 a month for each child until the age of 17. The policy does have a phaseout further up the income bracket, and to the annoyance of otherwise hopeful critics on both the left and right, will only be really sent on a monthly basis for the poorest Americans with a negative tax liability. For most American families, the monthly rate component would effectively be irrelevant while they receive a single large tax credit once a year.
However, the effects of such a policy should not be understated. Because the United States does such a minimal job of spending on its poorest children, the policy is estimated to significantly reduce child poverty, and adult poverty to a lesser extent. In the face of progressive proposals for national childcare, providing cash to parents instead allows for a plurality of choices among families to spend the credit on local childcare or consider a relative or parent at home as an option. These accomplishments alone would be worth applauding, but this redistribution scheme also carries interesting political implications.
By spending money on children and the adults who care for them, the federal government can send a clear message about what values it holds for the nation at large. As Lyman Stone at the conservative Institute for Family Studies has noted, the AFA could plausibly nudge fertility rates upward while also sending a positive message about the importance of raising the next generation. With an eye to political coalition interests, it's also not unreasonable to think that with more money in the hands of parents, less abortions will be procured. Therefore, the AFA doesn't just increase the well being of children and their parents, but could send a very clear message that more traditionalist voters could get behind and amplify.
That kind of a message could hardly come at a better time. American fertility rates have been plummeting since the 2008 Recession, while many young adults otherwise likely to begin parenting are often curtailed by college loan debt. Traditionalists might say Americans have lost their way and no longer care for the essential task of bringing up future generations. Progressives on the other hand might argue that Americans, women especially, finally have greater freedom to pursue other goals and are rightfully doing so. Survey data points to a more mundane story; Americans still want to have children but are increasingly falling short of that desire. A better conservatism ought to understand and emphasize the structural constraints that stand in their way.
This is not to say the American Family Act will suddenly receive Republican support tomorrow. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has noted the intellectual right's recent shift from small government thinking, but state-friendly conservatives should recognize that the actual political coalition in power moves far slower. One should not expect too many GOP representatives and senators to support a bill with an estimated annual cost of $90 billion, especially since the strongest family policies suggested by Republicans so far have often been budget neutral, with the exception of Senators Rubio and Lee's child tax-credit that became law along the 2017 tax bill to the ire of some fiscal hawks.
There is still plenty of room for the Republican party to become a more working class party as it loses more of its fiscally conservative and wealthier college-educated voters. But the Democratic party is not exactly about to move in a libertarian direction, so while left-wing populists throw out big promises and vague whitepapers, more sober opportunities will present themselves. The American Family Act of 2019 is one such opportunity, and while it is unlikely, one can hope a Republican senator or two will realize this chance. For better or worse, the future of American politics belongs to those who dare to move quickly.