Will a major story of the 2020 election be Democrats challenging Republicans’ long-time reputation as the “pro-family” party?
Child-care proposals have cropped up across the crowded Democratic presidential primary field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed nationalized childcare, which Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar support with their own plans. Sen. Cory Booker supports nationalized preschool.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and author Marianne Williamson are among those who support tax credits for child care. Gillibrand, who recently released a “Family Bill of Rights,” even wants to “require insurance companies to cover treatments like IVF.” It’s enough to make you wonder if Democrats have become the party of stealth pro-natalists. (Stealth because “pro-natalist” has become a dirty word, especially on the left.)
Of course, it’s always nice when politicians care enough to pander to you. And millennials, especially millennial women, these policy ideas are clearly aimed at you. But for what purpose? Is this about making life easier for the shrinking number of Americans who choose parenthood, or is this about reversing our falling fertility rates?
The first would make this an expensive way to woo voters. The latter could make it a project of national importance. But do Democrats—or Americans more broadly—care how many millennials become parents?
Adulthood: Now Parenting-Optional
For previous generations, parenthood was synonymous with adulthood. But in the 21st century, parenthood is widely considered one of many equally valid lifestyle choices.
Becoming a parent is an intensely personal decision. However, it’s also one with tremendous societal implications. So while it may not matter if any given individual decides parenthood isn’t a fit—and it’s not for everyone—it matters a lot if many members of a generation opt out. For a population to remain numerically stable, women must average 2.1 children apiece, and 2018 saw the lowest U.S. birth rate in 32 years.
When Morning Consult polled millennials last year about why they have fewer than their ideal number of children, answers varied widely. While 64 percent of respondents cited the high cost of child care, and 39 percent insufficient parental leave, 42 percent said they wanted more leisure time. Thirty-three percent worried about climate change and 27 percent about population growth. Twenty-three percent were prioritizing their education and career, and 19 percent had a partner who didn’t want children. Among those who say they don’t want children or are unsure, leisure time was the leading reason, given by 36 percent of respondents.
All of this is to say, there are many factors at play. Some are economic, but many are about cultural and personal preferences. So convincing many millennials to embrace parenthood will likely be harder than throwing taxpayer dollars at them. Some will never be persuaded.
This is a major weakness in existing Democratic proposals. Candidates are viewing contemporary parenting challenges through the lenses of feminism and economics. But those two modes of thinking don’t adequately explain individual human behavior or larger societal trends. By ignoring faith, culture, and community—all of which impact major decisions like family—the Democratic responses are destined to be incomplete at best.
Combating Some of Feminism’s Lies
Millennials have grown up marinated in cultural messages about women being equal to men (yes), and women’s greatest value being attached to paid work (no). Many young Americans grow up believing their identity, greatest achievements, and best shot at happiness stem from their workplace. Home and parenthood are widely considered not only less impressive in the short-term but also less significant in the long-term.
So, millennials (and all subsequent generations) have “the right” to become parents, but cultural influences matter. Our ideas about what’s “good” or “normal” are shaped not only by what we grew up with, but also by what we see our peers doing.
With adults’ choices diverging, Democrats’ language around parenting is nothing if not focused on rights, lest either side feel judged or slighted. Gillibrand, for example, asserts that “having or adopting a child should be a fundamental right if a parent wants one.” That makes 21st-century parenthood sound like the new frontier of American rights, with nary a mention of any attendant responsibilities. (Maybe we’ll hear about those after the election?)
That linguistic emphasis on adults’ preferences is part of what makes this whole discussion feel somewhat confused. On the one hand, if this is all a matter of personal choice, why are politicians involving themselves? On the other, if they’re offering public policy solutions, what is the public problem being addressed?
And don’t tell me that we need more women in the workforce to up the gross domestic product. Mothers and fathers are humans, not economic bots, and 83 percent of married mothers with young children tell pollsters they would prefer not to work full-time.
This whole conversation makes more sense if you view it through a pro-natalist prism. Then the obvious policy goal is boosting birth rates because recent declines have implications for our nation’s future security and prosperity. In that context, it makes sense for political and cultural leaders to comment about citizens’ private choices—and parenthood is a big one.
The Paired Roles of Faith and Community
Parenthood is life changing. It’s an exercise in frequently prioritizing the needs of one or more little people over your own. It’s a personal investment not only in family, but also in community. That shift is made much more manageable when surrounded by family, friends, and a faith community with similar values.
That last part is the kicker, because younger Americans are the least religious. Forty-four percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 43 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds identify as religious “nones.” They are not likely to be affiliated with a traditional religion that emphasizes the importance of generational continuity or to benefit from the support of a close-knit faith community that envelops every new family with hot meals, hand-me-down clothes, toys, babysitting, or play dates for big siblings.
There are both tangible and intangible benefits to living in such a community where the family is emphasized, not the least of which is a shared belief that raising children is a noble calling. A real community is also there to help around the clock, even on federal holidays. No government program offers anything similar.
The proposed programs might help some number of families deal with the stresses and strains of childcare, but they’re more likely to be expensive band-aids than panaceas. Gillibrand can try to raise $777 billion with her new tax. Warren can also promise to expand “high quality” child care from the current 10 percent up to 100 percent of participating families by taxing multimillionaires. But when’s the last time a government program fulfilled its lofty goals and did so without busting its budget?
There are so many underlying issues that contribute to rising inequality and family fragility, but they’re not adequately addressed by these plans. The most appealing of these proposals may be the child-care tax credits supported by several primary contenders because remedies would be less prescriptive. But again, none of these proposed solutions is likely to transform parental realities in isolation, nor are they likely to bring on a baby boom.
So, do we care about having future generations of Americans? If so, we’ll need to dig deeper, starting with an acknowledgment that economics isn’t everything. Culture and community still matter.