How To Help Middle-Class Families

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 3 2012 8:47 AM

How To Help Middle-Class Families

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France's President Francois Hollande visits the kindergarten of the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 19, 2012

Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.

This seemed like a very sensible paragraph from Ross Douthat:

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.
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By contrast, this seems slightly nutty:

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

It'd be a much better country if social conservatives would stop writing things like that second paragraph and focus instead on what's in the first paragraph. France and Sweden, rather sensibly, have decided that the continued existence of French and Swedish society are matters of public importance and that this offers a particular reason to invest funds in supporting middle-class families. In Sweden, for example, about 0.8 percent of GDP is spent on subsidized parental leave. That's be the equivalent of a $120-billion-a-year program in the United States. But I think it would be money well spent. The French government's level of investment in bolstering the welfare of newborn babies and new mothers is the stuff of legend and fiscal cost aside sometimes veers into the weird, but again these policy levers—more than condemning the "decadence" of people responding to the situation that actually exists—are how you give appropriate weight to the importance of childrearing without trying to micromanage people's lives.

Of course there are other ideas out there that are friendlier to conservative ideology. Here in Washington, D.C., and other coastal metro areas, parents who might otherwise be inclined to have a large family will find that it's prohibitively expensive to find a large enough house. This is something land use deregulation could help a lot.

Josh Barro wrote a shrewd column the other day arguing that conservatives need to get over their gut-level hostility to "redistribition" in order to find an intellectually respectable way of making their agenda relevant to middle-class concerns. The sensible parts of Douthat's column offer perhaps another way of looking at this. In much of the aughts, the GOP seemed to be pushing an unpopular, elite-focused economic agenda and getting away with it by yoking it to a popular social conservative agenda. But with public opinion rapidly shifting on gay equality and the demographic composition of the electorate shifting, that particular combo doesn't work as well as it used to. The way back could involve shifting economic policy for social conservative reasons exactly as the extensive welfare states in Sweden and France are designed, in part, to specifically promote the interests of people with kids.

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