Ross Douthat: Why America needs Mitt Romney’s family plan

Romney’s cash payment plan would lower child poverty without discouraging work and marriage.

(Screengrab | Zoom) Sen. Mitt Romney speaks about his meeting with President Joe Biden and efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on a proposed COVID relief plan.

Family policy, the way that America supports (or doesn’t) parenthood and child rearing, has always presented the best opportunity for serious bipartisanship in Joe Biden’s presidency. It’s an issue with real overlap between the left and right: Feminists and social conservatives, left-wing antipoverty activists and right-wing pro-natalists all agree that it’s too hard to raise kids in America today.

And it’s an issue where the relevant interest group, the American family, isn’t a partisan force or a pre-mobilized constituency — which is usually a weakness for its interests but in a polarized moment might actually make legislation easier.

This past week, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, put that theory to the test: His office rolled out a big proposal to reform the current hodgepodge of programs that help parents, the mix of tax credits and welfare benefits, by rolling them into a single family benefit that would provide $350 a month for kids 5 and younger, and $250 a month for kids up to 17, up to a certain income level and benefit cap. (The cap effectively discriminates against large families, which means Romney can’t be accused of Latter-day Saint self-dealing.)

In keeping with the opportunity described above, the Romney plan offers something to left and right alike. It would significantly reduce child poverty, a core left-wing ambition. At the same time it reduces the current system’s penalties for marriage and its tacit bias against stay-at-home parents, both social-conservative goals, and raises the current subsidy for middle-class families, usually a Republican-leaning constituency. Finally, it’s both deficit neutral and softly anti-abortion, with a benefit that starts while the child is still in utero.

So with all this winning, who could be against it? The likely liberal objections will focus on how Romney pays for his plan. The cuts to existing welfare programs would be exceeded by the plan’s big benefits for poor kids, but they would still reduce support for specific liberal priorities (the day care tax credit, for instance) and the antipoverty bureaucracy writ large. Meanwhile, Romney’s other big pay-for is the full elimination of the state and local tax deduction, which is a good policy move — the deduction is a regressive subsidy to high-tax states — but one that blue-state politicians have strong incentives to oppose.

The conservative objections, meanwhile, will tend to fall into two categories. First, there’s a conservatism that dismisses any kind of support for families as presumptuous right-wing social engineering, an attempt to bribe people into changing their personal preferences and intimate decisions.

As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, though, this argument is rather weakened by the gap between the number of kids that Americans say they want and the size of the families they have — a gulf between desire and reality that’s pushing us toward population decline. To the extent that there’s social engineering involved in Romney’s plan, Ponnuru suggests, what’s being “engineered” isn’t a bribe to change people’s preferences but “a way of helping them to live out what they already want.”

The other conservative objection is the one already offered by Romney’s fellow Republican senators, Mike Lee and Marco Rubio, who have championed a larger child tax credit in the past. Their tax credit approach, they argue, doesn’t encourage dependency and unemployment, because it’s available only to parents who are already providing for their families. The Romney subsidy, on the other hand, looks more like the pre-1996 forms of welfare that conservatives believe effectively discouraged work.

The risk, from this perspective, would be that the Romney plan might encourage a retreat from marriage and the labor force in poor communities — a combination, warns Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute, that could impede the “long-term prospects” of the benefit’s recipients “and, more important, the well-being of their children,” even if they get an immediate financial boost.

This is a reasonable concern: Winship has made a strong case that the post-1990s welfare system is better than the old one at reducing child poverty, and that its strong incentives for work are crucial to that goal.

I think it’s less likely that the 1990s reforms encouraged marriage or reduced out-of-wedlock birthrates, given the latter’s continued upward trend, but it’s possible they played some role in reducing teen pregnancies and births.

But there are two reasons for conservatives who supported the Gingrich-era reforms to give Romney’s plan a hearing. First, some of his plan’s incentives clearly cut in favor of work and marriage, not against. One big reason the old welfare system discouraged work was that its benefits could disappear immediately if a beneficiary found a job, because every dollar earned meant a dollar less in welfare. But the Romney subsidy phases out only at high incomes, so there’s no disincentive for a low-income parent to take a job. Meanwhile, the plan also tweaks the earned-income tax credit to make it more pro-marriage and pro-work, potentially balancing out any disincentives created by the child benefit.

Lifting up from the policy detail, though, the bigger reason for conservatives to favor the Romney’s plan’s generosity is that we live in a very different world from 1996. Then, America had an overall birthrate that was consistently around replacement level, and a stubbornly high teenage birthrate in communities struggling with chronic poverty. It was reasonable, in that context, for welfare reform to focus on breaking a cycle in which teen pregnancy threatened to lead to lasting unemployment and subsidized dependency.

Today, the situation is different. The teen birthrate has plummeted to its lowest level in modern American history, and meanwhile the overall birthrate has plummeted as well, with COVID-19 delivering an extra fertility suppressant. (If the United States had just maintained its 2008 fertility rate, 5.8 million more children would exist today.) Neither political coalition is reckoning yet with the consequences of this fertility collapse, but we will all be living with its consequences — in stagnation, loneliness, alienation — for decades to come.

In this environment, it’s worth risking some small incentive to have and raise kids in non-ideal circumstances in order to create a more welcoming society for child rearing overall. The conservative goals of supporting work and marriage remain important, but in the balance they have to yield a little to a more fundamental goal — that society should reproduce itself.

For that matter, the more liberal goal of equity should yield as well — which is why the Romney plan would actually be better without the income cap, with a family benefit flowing even unto fecund billionaires.

To a much greater extent than 25 years ago, America simply needs more babies — from the rich and poor and middle class alike. Public policy alone cannot deliver them, even something as ambitious as the Romney plan. But its reasonable goal isn’t an immediate baby boom, desirable though that might be. It’s to lay the firmest possible policy foundation on which a more fertile, youthful and hopeful society might eventually be built.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.