Family policy has assumed center stage on the American right. Lawmakers are focused on the impending passage of a COVID relief bill that could include, for the first time, a national family benefit for parents. Sen. Mitt Romney has put forward his own version of a pro-family policy, which promises to fund a child allowance for years to come. How should Christians react to such proposals?
St. John Paul II offers guidance. Think back to the remarkable testimony he offered in defense of the human person—first against the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and later against a utilitarianism that viewed life itself in technological terms. In a world whose technology increasingly alienates us from one another, the pope’s vision looks profound and prophetic.
John Paul II’s teaching included another element, however. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens, he presented the role of labor in the economy as something intrinsically praiseworthy, distorted by both communist central planning and a capitalist tendency to view labor strictly as a cost.
The pope who made “queen of the family” one of Mary’s titles considered the home a barometer of overall economic health. Rather than fixating on particular wage levels that should vary across industries and sectors, John Paul II called attention to what he called the family wage:
Just remuneration . . . can be given either through what is called a family wage—that is, a single salary given to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home—or through other social measures such as family allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their families. These grants should correspond to the actual needs, that is, to the number of dependents for as long as they are not in a position to assume proper responsibility for their own lives.
Two years later, the Holy See distilled the Church’s teachings on the family in a “Charter on the Rights of the Family,” issued in October 1983. Drawing on Laborem exercens and Familiaris consortio, the Holy See declared that families have a right to an economic order that fosters their living together and enables mothers to care for their children.
While Laborem exercens was later overshadowed by Centesimus annus (1991) and Evangelium vitae (1995), the three encyclicals, taken together, present a clear view of the place of the family within the modern economy. The family had long been a declared enemy of the old communist regimes; but one could not blithely assume it would be supported by Western regimes that promoted abortion while increasingly viewing human labor as an undesirable cost.
The current proposals for a child allowance are appearing in the United States just as a new set of social, economic, and political forces are triangulating to burden family life. The economic devastation brought on by coronavirus-era restrictions has left low-income workers in a more precarious situation than ever before. At the same time, for those who have kept their jobs, the shift to work-from-home arrangements and telecommuting has added new burdens to home life. Many households now bear the additional costs of maintaining home offices, as well as more mouths to feed at lunchtime—with children still trapped in remote learning in many states and localities. For better or worse, homes and households will be a central part of our economy well after COVID-19 recedes.
As Michael Lind has observed, only in recent times has talk of economics focused on markets alone without also considering the family, the state, and civil society. The shift toward a home-centered economy does not mean a return to the cottage system of household production (although at-home production of services is a key feature of remote work). What it means, as Lind suggests, is that industry will produce more goods for use and consumption at home. Thus orienting national support toward the family rather than the individual fits with the economic and political moment that we now inhabit.
Conservatives have sometimes bristled at the suggestion that parental labor should be treated as work and receive compensation on a national scale. Recognizing that work at home is work, however, has been integral to Catholic social thought. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2005, called for “the work of housekeeping” to be understood as “a type of activity . . . that must be socially recognized and valued, also by means of economic compensation in keeping with that of other types of work.” Criticisms of child allowances that object to classifying child-rearing as work, and insist on pressuring families into dual-income dependency, do not reflect this insight of Catholic social teaching, which can help inform the thinking of all morally serious citizens—not just Catholics.
Catholic social teaching has always been flexible; there are multiple ways that family support might be delivered. John Paul II viewed the health of the family as a barometer of whether employers were providing just remuneration to a family. One way or another, children have to be cared for—either by a father earning enough to support his wife and children, by two working parents and third-party childcare, or by a family benefit that gives families the freedom to choose.
For too long conservatives have thought of cultural policy and economic policy as distinct entities, with one geared toward maintaining quality of life and the other increasing the quantity of wealth. This is a mistake. These cannot be separated, and policy must treat the culture economically and the economy culturally.
While policy debates are often arcane disputes, the question of family allowances is quite simple. In a world where a wage that could sustain a family is a distant memory, generous family allowances provide one of the only ways to support family life. Romney's plan no doubt needs careful scrutiny. The devil of policy is always in the details. But the basic idea points us in the right direction. Injecting purchasing power into the heart of the home will turn our economy further in the direction of the family—the economy's starting point and its ultimate measure.
Gladden Pappin is assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and deputy editor of American Affairs.
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