The Magazine

Indentured Families

Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?

Mar 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 26 • By ALLAN CARLSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Even so, all is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming "nontraditional" and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America's "family wage" system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance. Indeed, the GOP has done absolutely nothing to curb the egalitarian frenzy and the gender-role engineering set off by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and enshrined at the Pentagon. Equity feminism still rules these roosts.

Or consider child care. A timely veto by Richard Nixon stopped the government's day care juggernaut in 1971, but only for a few months. The same year, Nixon signed a Republican-designed measure also backed by the National Organization for Women (heir to the GOP-favored National Woman's party). This law allowed families to deduct day care costs from their income tax, cleverly labeling them "business expenses." This has since grown into a credit worth between $1,500 and $2,100 in reduced taxes for households using day care. Even the wealthiest qualify.

Meanwhile, families that sacrifice a second income to keep a mother or father at home receive nothing except a higher net tax. Bills to correct this gross inequity have been regularly introduced in Congress since 1996, most recently the Parents' Tax Relief Act of 2006 (H.R. 3080). However, the Republican leadership has ignored them. To underscore the lost opportunity here, note that conservatives in Canada rode to victory just a few weeks ago by embracing a plan to extend that nation's day care benefit to stay-at-home parents; not a whiff of this, though, in the recent State of the Union address.

Add to these examples the bankruptcy reform measure discussed earlier, and ask: What do these issues have in common? All three are matters where the interests of big business and the interests of traditional, one-breadwinner families have collided, and in each case the Republican party has sided in the end with business. Concerning one-income families, the great corporations continue to view them as a waste of human resources, artificially raising labor costs by holding adults at home. Judging by its inaction and results, the GOP agrees. For the same reason, large businesses generally favor federally subsidized day care, for it creates incentives for mothers to work rather than care for their children. Existing Republican policy strongly favors this social parenting. And the credit industry has every interest in creating a new, indentured debtor class annually sending 20 percent of its income to the banks. The Republicans concur.

OTHER DEBT-DRIVEN FAMILY ISSUES are looming, with little indication of a Republican willingness to tackle them in a pro-family way. Consider the Federal Student Loan program, launched in the mid-1960s as a modest supplement to means-tested federal education grants. The system has since morphed into a massive debt machine, lending out $58 billion in 2005 alone and fueling a huge increase in college and university costs. The average bachelor's degree recipient currently graduates with $20,000 in debt; students having attended graduate school report another $50,000 to $100,000 in debt, creating in one commentator's words "the most indebted generation of young Americans ever."

Here we find another newly indentured class of Americans, also paying about 20 percent of their incomes to the banks for decades to come. Disturbingly, over 20 percent of these borrowers report that they have delayed having children because of their debt, while 15 percent say they have delayed marriage. These are not pro-family outcomes. The most recent Republican response to the borrowers' plight--undertaken in early February in the name of fiscal responsibility--was to pass a measure whose net effect will be to raise the long-term debt facing young adults.

Another troubling new issue is Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, the federal government's child support collection and enforcement program. Originally designed to track down the welfare fathers of illegitimate children, the measure has increasingly targeted middle income households affected by divorce. There is mounting evidence that the system now encourages marital breakup and exacerbates fatherlessness by creating a winner-take-all game, where the losing parent--commonly a father wanting to save the marriage--is unfairly penalized by the loss of his children and by a federally enforced child support obligation. Here we find objectively false feminist views--the assumption that men are always the abusers and women are always the victims--driving public policy. And here we find still another newly indentured class of citizens--noncustodial parents--being squeezed financially by the state. If you think this an exaggeration, I refer you to no less an authority than Phyllis Schlafly, who calls this runaway federal law the most serious danger facing American families today.

Democrats often dream of wooing the "Reagan Democrats" back into the fold. Bill Clinton, who could speak "evangelical" and who embraced pro-family tax and welfare reforms, succeeded to some degree. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg, who actually coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats," argues that "a new, family-centered politics can define and revitalize the Democratic party." Its message should highlight "family integrity and parental responsibility" and offer a "progressive vision of family support." Greenberg even theorizes that "Roman Catholics would [again] rally to a Democratic party respectful of family and committed to defending government's unique role in supporting it."

If the Democratic party remains the party of the sexual revolution, as its open yearning for same-sex marriage suggests it may, such dreams will remain just that. However, if a Democratic leader can ever shake that monkey off his--or her--back, and if this occurs in conjunction with an economic downturn, the prospects for another broad political realignment are fairly high. A new economic populism, delivering child-sensitive benefits and skewering predatory banks and bureaucrats, could work politically for a clever Democrat.

Moreover, when push comes to shove, social conservatives remain second class citizens under the Republican tent. During the 2004 Republican convention, they were virtually confined to the party's attic, kept off the main stage, treated like slightly lunatic children. Republican lobbyist Michael Scanlon's infamous candid comment--"The wackos get their information [from] the Christian right [and] Christian radio"--suggests a common opinion among the dominant "K Street" Republicans toward their coalition allies.

Contemporary Republican leaders need to do better--much better--toward social conservatives. They must creatively address pressing new family issues centered on debt burden. And they must learn to say "no" sometimes to Wall Street, lest they squander the revolutionary political legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois.