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A recurring memory has stayed with me throughout my life. It is the late-night sound of my father limping tiredly up the steps to our house after working another wedding or bar mitzvah, keys jingling until he could find the right one to unlock the front door. The memory is a reminder of the sacrifices he made for our family and a source of motivation for me to follow his example for my own family today.
My father worked as a bartender, and my mother was a maid. And yet the jobs my parents worked provided for a family. Stable employment, even in my father’s service-sector work, paid well enough for my mother to consider staying at home by the time my younger sister was born. They had enough to own a home, raise three kids, and even help send me to college.
Our version of the American Dream was not just the product of our family’s work ethic or the higher living standards measured against my parent’s poorer home country. It was a source of stability broadly made possible for middle-class parents across the country at that time.
My parents came to America in 1956. This was a unique period of family prosperity in the history of our country. The national indicators of a strong and active working-class family life—wages’ share of the economy, marriage and childbearing, and even church attendance—were near all-time highs. There were well-worn pathways to achieving this prosperity, for young men especially, which involved good-paying and stable work.
The Path to Prosperty Has Closed Off
Sadly, this no longer is the case in America. Does anyone think a family with the earnings of a bartender and a maid could lead a comfortable life in today’s economy? From 1966 to 2016, the real median wage earned by men with only a high school diploma—men like my father—declined from more than $40,000 a year to $33,516. Since 1975, the share of men ages 25 to 34 earning less than $30,000 rose from 25 percent to more than 41 percent. And while our country made great progress to reduce hiring discrimination against women, over the past half-century the earnings American families obtained from women joining the workforce were not enough to generate total income growth when the working parents only had a high school degree.
In recent years, this path to prosperity has closed off, leaving many young men and women who do not have college degrees—the majority of the country—to chart their own courses where clear and attainable paths to a meaningful and prosperous life once existed. The cultural image of a stable working-class family life once thought to be the floor has become the ceiling.
One consequence is an ongoing series of no-win situations known well by young parents. Choose to have one parent stay at home, and you can’t afford the house close to your place of work—or possibly afford to buy a home at all. Have both parents work and watch childcare costs cancel out most of one of your income. Take time off of work right after having a new child only to spend less time with them for the rest of their childhood because of the second job you took to pay off the debt from your unpaid parental leave.
Families are stuck in an anti-family race to the bottom in which the “winners” are those who spend the least amount of time with their children.
Clearly, this is not the life many working American families would choose for themselves. Almost 70 percent of all mothers prefer work situations short of full-time of employment. A majority of working mothers say they would rather stay at home to take care of their families than work outside of the home. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe that children are better off when one parent stays at home, and yet only 32 percent of families consist of one working parent and one stay-at-home parent. It should come as no surprise that American families are having fewer children than they would like.
And this is only for families where mom and dad live together, and that doesn’t include the declining number of young men and women who are even having kids in the first place. The collapse of family stability ripples throughout our whole society. A hard, broken national family life reduces the number of families being formed at all, to devastating effect for today’s Americans and unborn generations to come. It has led to an America where the most basic indicators of a healthy society—marriage and childbearing rates—are bottom dwellers. That these catastrophic trends are occurring when the official statistics tell us things should be better than ever before is cause for alarm.
High-Wage Jobs Are Essential
While the explanation for much of the decline in strong families can be attributed to a decline in social values and an erosion of our communities, it can also be the case that a collapse of working-class family incomes aids and abets it. Indeed, as the public polling mentioned above suggests, many families retain traditional beliefs about child-rearing but living them out is becoming more and more difficult. Social conservatives need to understand that right now strengthening the family is as much about empowering parents to make the choices they want for their families as it is to preach what the right choices might be.
To achieve their goals, families need opportunities. In an economy that delivers low wages to its workers—and especially one which has seen a relative decline in the earnings power of its young men—these opportunities are in short supply. There are fewer marriageable young adults and less income to go around to use for time off to raise children or buy suitable homes. A stable home requires stable jobs and stable hours in the region where a family lives.
To re-make an America of stable families, we need an economy that delivers high wages to its workers in all parts of the country. It was with high wages from productive jobs that the Greatest Generation built the domestic prosperity we recall when we remember the 20th century as the American Century. President Trump’s actions against what amounts to Chinese Communist mercantilism are exactly what we need to get things started and undo much of the devastation we’ve seen in American manufacturing. Tax cuts for American businesses to create American jobs and innovation here at home is another. Breaking up a corrupt and elitist view of higher education that looks down on technical work and physical labor would round out an agenda to put America on track for the 21st century.
Creating and building support for an agenda to bring back good jobs is an important task that will take time and hard work, as evidenced by some of the political division even within the Republican Party. This does not mean that the crisis of the American family will wait, though. The Left would absolve the economy of its anti-family biases and address the insecurity of families through increased taxes, welfare payments, and penalizing traditional families for not bending to their progressive social views. This approach would preclude both higher wages and stronger families.
Americans Want to Stay Close to Home
Take, for example, paid family leave. The Left’s idea is to raise payroll taxes on all workers in order to fund a new paid leave benefit. Put plainly, this would be income redistribution from single earner families—the 32 percent of American families with a homemaker parent—who are more likely to be of lower income, to dual-earner parents. Then, after the 12 weeks of leave, they have defined as the appropriate time off in the home, the Left’s approach to helping families raise children is focused on getting parents out of the home. They would subsidize daycare facilities, by paying parents to put their kids into daycare and using government funding to build new daycare facilities.
This defines the liberal approach to family policy: reduce family incomes by raising taxes and then use the revenue from those taxes to subsidize the professional elite’s preferred parenting arrangements. It should come as no surprise, and is no coincidence, that these do not match the preferences of the majority of American families.
This difference does not require fundamentally opposed social views. Adult Americans on average live 18 miles away from their own parents. Many working parents prefer that their children be left with grandparents or cousins instead of professional child care services. Many “stay-at-home” parents only plan to be out of the labor force for just a few years until their kids are of school age. An agenda to reward financially parents who put their children in daycare and take leave from their jobs right after birth—and punish those who do not—is incompatible with these preferences.
The alternative to this imposition of values is to empower families to make their own choices instead of stacking the deck in such a way as to reward only one kind of choice. Making parents decisions for them is characteristic both of programs that push families to do things they otherwise would not, and an economy that prevents families from doing things they otherwise would. Paying parents to put their kids in daycare, and only being able to earn a decent family wage by having both parents work full-time puts families in a trap.
A Host of Policy Solutions
It does not have to be this way. The pro-family alternative to an economy that does not pay family incomes is not redistributing income; it is to build an economy that pays higher family incomes. That means an economy that pays regular Americans higher wages and allows parents to keep as much of their own money as possible while they raise their children.
Building this economy means investing in the productivity of American workers by cutting the tax burden of businesses creating the American jobs of the 21st century, not just those seeking to boost their stock prices. It means making sure American workers and innovators are treated fairly in international trade by making it painful for bad actors, like China, to steal the fruits of our labor. It means getting the millions of “missing men” back into the labor force by rewarding work with our welfare policies, and helping to clear the once well-traveled path to a stable working-class provided by a technical career through accrediting innovative educational products, like vocational degrees.
It also means expanding the per-child tax credit like we started in last year’s tax law. It means enacting a flexible paid parental leave plan that gives parents the option to take some of their own Social Security benefits early after having a new child—including stay-at-home parents who have worked in the past. These measures would make the economy more pro-family by ensuring that when parents start and raise a family they have access to as much of their own money as possible in order to make the choices that are best for their families.
Like most Americans, the memory of the life my parents built, and the future lives I want my children and grandchildren to have, are sources of hope and concern. I’m filled with pride when I think of my father’s late night hours so that he could provide for our family and achieve the American Dream, but I know that the jobs of working-class parents today simply do not pay like they used to do. And, from my own experience with raising four children, I also know that raising a family is more expensive than it used to be. To think that working-class parents might not be able to find the same opportunities to continue the classic American legacy my parents began is a profound source of concern for the future of our country.
Making an America in which my children and relatives can afford to start and raise a family is one of the great challenges we face today. But it has been a great American tradition to rise up to challenges, turn our weaknesses into strengths, and continually restore the American ideals our nation was founded on. We must hope that we can do the same in our time.
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