Far too little serious thought has been given to it Guidelines and ideas to support motherhood and family policies on the right. Part of this shortage stems from a conservative desire to limit government overreach, but it has created gaping holes in the safety net, particularly for mothers and children. However, part of this is probably also due to the fact that few women in general, and mothers in particular, are in positions of power in the party, limiting their say in policy-making.
I’ve seen first hand how this works.
In 2012, I was hired as program director for economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. While there, with the then only resident female scholar on the economics team and my friend Aparna Mathur, I published several papers and articles on women’s economic opportunities, childcare, single parenthood and paid vacations. At times our work met with resistance. AEI prides itself on its ability to encourage the competition for ideas, so some of that was to be expected, although at times the disagreements felt more fundamental.
Our work didn’t exactly fit the Conservative philosophy at the time, although I had always hoped that government support for childcare and maternity leave would fit within a family-friendly, growth-friendly Conservative framework. I felt like a renegade, or RINO, for writing about it, even though motherhood kept popping up as a turning point in economic opportunity and upward mobility data. Being the only woman on the team added to the feeling that we had these problems on our own.
Eventually, Aparna and I both left AEI to pursue other opportunities. In 2014, I moved to Texas to oversee policy for then-Governor Rick Perry’s second presidential run in 2016, and nine months later I had my first baby. After giving birth, the survey data that one in four women are back at work within two weeks took a whole new meaning. Nothing is healed, fixed, or stable by then, or even close to it.
The lack of women is an issue throughout the GOP political establishment. There are 106 Democratic women and 38 Republican women in Congress in both chambers. A look at the list of top right- and left-leaning political institutions shows that left-leaning institutions also generally have more female domestic policy scholars. Congress and think tanks complement and inform each other’s work, existing in parallel Washington universes, and so they also reinforce each other’s cultural problems, including their lack of female representation and leadership.
Still, the number of Republican women in Congress is at an all-time high, having lagged behind the Democrats’ share of women in office since the 1950s. And slowly the Republican Party is to come to family-friendly politics. That sea change came with then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle. Driven largely by the interest of his daughter Ivanka, Trump included a six-week paid maternity leave policy and child care proposal in his campaign. By engaging on this issue, Trump gave the party and its many associated institutions the political guise to move on child care and paid vacation issues without being labeled as RINOs.
Slowly and surely, a broader spectrum of Republican members began to propose policies of their own for paid vacations, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who proposed tax breaks for companies that provide paid family vacations in his 2016 presidential campaign), Utah Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, and others. These have included innovative proposals for early withdrawal of Social Security funds to fund periods of paid parental leave, bringing forward and increasing child tax payments to cover periods of parental leave, or combining other means-tested programs into an easier program of access to cash benefits for families . And the Republican Congress under Trump passed an expanded child tax credit, a spending plan with more money for the Child Care and Dependent Block Grant (CCDBG) that helps support child care for low-income families, and granted paid parental leave to the federal workforce. In 2017, AEI and Brookings established a bipartisan working group on paid leave, and I was delighted to speak at the launch event about the importance of paid parental leave from a conservative perspective.
The Covid-19 pandemic at the end of the Trump administration accelerated the debate. Congress passed emergency and temporary family support provisions, including for the first time a bipartisan federal paid leave program, an expanded child tax credit and increased child care funding. But those programs have since expired.
With President Joe Biden at the helm, few Republicans seem keen to return to the table. His groundbreaking agenda, Build Back Better, which focused on dramatically increasing our investments in early childhood, was so vast and unwieldy, and riddled with hidden costs, that Republicans were able to denounce the entire package rather than grapple with his components to deal with. Even many Democrats had concerns about inflating prices and not reaching the most vulnerable families. Despite recent bipartisan dynamics over infrastructure and gun rights, there has been little in the legislation designed to go beyond the aisle or compromise. The legislation failed to win the support of moderates in the Senate and has gone nowhere since.
But Republicans need to get back to the table on these issues, and fast.