Sen. Marco Rubio recently wrote that the purpose of economic policymaking is to ensure that people have dignified work. This idea—that the primary goal of economic policy is worthy labor, rather than, say, GDP growth—is consonant with what Oren Cass calls the “working hypothesis.” Cass encourages conservatives to prioritize “work” (by which he means “remunerated market labor”) in policymaking. Rubio’s op-ed reinforces Cass’s argument with a theological point: Scripture and Church teaching require this emphasis on dignified work. But alas, this kind of economic policymaking does not necessarily serve the interests of American families.
In a recent article, I, along with two co-authors, showed that ultra-low fertility in Asian countries is the result of lifestyles that revolve around work. We built on prior research showing that fertility rates are lower in countries where survey respondents indicate a strong belief that “work provides meaning in life.” Italy, Spain, and Poland fit this description, among other countries. Many ultra-low-fertility Catholic countries are highly “workist.” In countries that combine this “workism” with labor regulations that prioritize steady, full-time work and protect “salarymen” from disruptions, like in Italy or Japan, birth rates are lower still.
Average working hours per worker in America (as tracked by the OECD) have declined since the 1950s, but less than average working hours have declined in any other country. We are increasingly becoming a work-obsessed society. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the only values shared by majorities of young and old Americans were tolerance and the importance of work. Patriotism, family, and religion all slumped significantly across generations.
If work-promoting policymakers didn’t care about family, there would be no tension here. But Rubio’s op-ed also includes explicit support for family benefits like a child tax credit and a paid family leave program. Rubio was one of the few Republicans to go to the mat for a child tax credit expansion during the tax reform debates. He clearly values family. But he and other thinkers, like Cass, have not fully considered what a “work first” policy focus might do to the American birth rate.
For example, academic research suggests that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a clear subsidy for work, actually reduces birth rates—even though it is more generous to people with children. It is not at all clear that policies subsidizing work will boost fertility. Even family leave is highly ambiguous: Most research on family leave suggests that leave time has no effect on fertility. It can even reduce fertility, because it makes women more likely to return to the labor force. That return to work lowers the odds of future children. Generous paid leave has been shown to be pro-natal, but conservatives like Rubio mostly have advocated for actuarially-sound paid leave policies; that is, paid leave policies that don’t pay much (and what they do pay comes out of future Social Security benefits, meaning families need to work harder and longer to offset the loss).
I like Rubio’s family leave proposal. It’s a reasonable suggestion even if there’s no fertility impact. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking this policy will create work-life balance.
Policies like wage subsidies, which Rubio and I both favor, could also have perverse effects. They work by inducing greater labor supply. But some of that greater supply will be captured by firms in the form of lower wages, which will encourage them to use more labor-intensive production methods. This is great if your goal is to maximize hours worked. It’s not so great if your goal is improving family life.
My point is not that we should reject a wage subsidy. It’s a fine idea and, dollar for dollar, would be much better for families than the current EITC. My point is that a political ethos centered on the importance of work may not actually advance conservative priorities.
Conservatives should engage in a different public catechesis, communicating that the labor of providing care in the home, whether to children or elders or the disabled, is as dignified as labor in the marketplace. As Americans increasingly focus on the value of “work,” we should not try to outdo secular culture in prioritizing market labor.
Rather, we should argue that “work” includes many kinds of labor to which God calls people. And if we are serious about that, then a larger child benefit—even a “parenting wage”—should not be an “also-ran” policy. It should be the first priority of any serious conservative economic policy. We must communicate to the wider culture that work in the home is as worthy as work outside the home, and that because it is worthy, we will pay it a fair wage. As long as market labor remains at the center of our political vision, families will continue to suffer.
Lyman Stone is an economist who researches demography and migration, and an advisor at Demographic Intelligence.