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Many factors influence decisions to marry and have children: prevailing religious commitments, ideas of beauty and honor, vanity, hope or confidence in the future, the cost of having children, the willingness to bear burdens. A country’s sexual ecosystem—the network of opinions, manners, and laws that shape a people’s attitude toward marriage—also affects how many people marry and how (and even whether) they become mothers and fathers. We cannot take marriage and family life for granted in a society that does not honor either.   

Our modern sexual ecosystem is hostile to marriage and the family. Easy access to pornography, no-fault divorce, and our sexual harassment regime have changed what we expect of men and women. Powerful ideologies stigmatize enduring, life-long marriage as oppressive. Increasingly, young people decide that the sacrifices and duties involved in family life are not worth it. As a result, marriage rates and birth rates have plummeted in this country. The COVID birth rate plunge is part of this larger trend away from parenthood.   

Economic incentives for family life are part of this sexual ecosystem, too. When financial penalties are attached to marriage, fewer will marry. When raising children is too expensive, fewer babies will be born. Family advocates long ago dreamed modest dreams about the power of incentives. A $500 child tax credit arrived in America in 1997. It doubled in 2003 and again in 2017. But none of these policies produced a rejuvenation of family life.  

Perhaps bigger incentives will move the needle. President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan would increase public aid in nearly every direction. It would provide “free pre-school” for all three- and four-year-olds; increase federal subsidies for child care; increase financial support for college attendance; and fund paid family leave as well as a monthly allowance for each child (which will expire after a few years). 

Republicans have proposals, too. Some assume that greater and more concentrated aid to families might encourage more couples to marry and have children. Sens. Lee and Rubio have proposed a doubling of the current tax credit. Sen. Romney has proposed a monthly child allowance that increases with the number of children. Sen. Hawley countered with a Parent Tax Credit (PTC). Under Sen. Hawley’s plan, single parents with children under thirteen would get a $6,000-per-year refundable tax credit, while married parents would get $12,000. Payments would come in equal monthly installments, and nearly every family would be eligible. Having multiple children would not increase the benefits.

These Republican proposals take advantage of something that government does well, and rightly so: cut checks without dictating how the money is spent. They stay out of the business of creating new institutions or direct subsidies. If parents want to spend their extra support on child care, or save it up for college, or spend it on necessities, fine. Unlike Biden’s plan, none of the Republican plans provide greater funding for day care or pre-school. Family life involves cares and responsibilities: Governments can support people in fulfilling such duties, but should not relieve them of those responsibilities.

One could assume that subsidies for having children would lead to an increase in birth rates. We have it on high authority, after all, that “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” But evidence for the efficacy of such subsidies is not too strong. Policies in Poland, as Lyman Stone has shown, have not moved the needle very much, as its total fertility rates have risen from 1.29 children per woman to 1.42. In Hungary, marriage rates have increased over 70 percent since Viktor Orban’s family policies were adopted in 2014, which attach benefits to married couples instead of children. Birth rates have shown a modest bump from about 1.2 children per woman in 2011 to about 1.5 in 2020, but still lag behind other former communist countries. Economic incentives alone are likely not enough. They form part, but not all, of the sexual ecosystem. 

Changing the broader sexual ecosystem is also key. Laws and cultural practices that link sex and procreation, and procreation and parental responsibility, are needed. Public authority must stigmatize and punish pornography. Flexible job practices should be used to encourage women to adopt part-time work if they choose to, so that they can pursue work and family life more easily. Homeschooling should remain legal and become less rare, and school choice would encourage greater parental responsibilities. 

When society honored motherhood, taught that procreative sex was central to marriage, and valued the responsibilities of family life, people had children at great personal risk and sacrifice—women had more children when maternal mortality was rampant, in comparison to today, when maternal deaths are so rare. Today, in the hostile sexual ecosystem, marriage and motherhood are much less honored. If we don’t change the ecosystem, we will make little progress. 

Family subsidies are a lever that might work and might pass. But without changing the broader sexual ecosystem, modest subsidies will never be enough.  

Conservatives must take stock of our policy failures with respect to the family over the past decades. Family is a product of culture, not economic incentives alone. Lose the culture, lose the family.  

Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies.

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