The Reception to the Family Fun Pack

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We released the Family Fun Pack — a program of seven benefits for families with children — on Friday. The immediate reception to the Family Fun Pack was enormous. It got far more traffic than any of our other proposals despite the fact that it was released on the Friday before a three-day weekend and with no accompanying press.

There has not yet been any published reactions to it except a piece in Wonkette. But there has been quite a bit of chatter on Twitter. That discussion has been overwhelmingly positive, with many of the top policy and journalist accounts tweeting out the link with messages of support.

There have been some negative reactions, which I want to address here. Those negative reactions can be grouped into two categories: completely misguided objections and reasonable objections that have tended to split people on these topics for decades.

Misguided Objections

Some people asked why the program does not include other stuff like housing benefits or medical leave. The reason is that the goal was to create a program as narrowly tailored as possible to supporting families with children. One can of course link every issue in the world to families with children in one way or another, but you have to draw a line somewhere or every paper would be about everything. Family benefits are a reasonably well-defined universe of things, e.g. by the OECD, and the paper stays within that universe.

Some people, mostly people with longstanding dislike of me personally, tried to argue that the program is unfair to households without children. One person claimed the program eliminates the childless EITC when it in fact quadruples it. Another claimed it eliminates the dependent care tax credit when it in fact eliminates the child care part of the child care and dependent care tax credit. Unsurprisingly, correcting these misrepresentations online did not change the minds of those making them about the merits of the FFP.

More generally, the idea that family benefits are unfair to households without children is akin to the idea that disability benefits are unfair to households without disabled people, old-age benefits are unfair to households without elderly people, and unemployment benefits are unfair to households without unemployed people. The primary purpose of a welfare state is to ensure that the national income is spread out to nonworking populations, including children and caregivers. The FFP is thus a classic welfare scheme. You could object to it as unfair perhaps but only insofar as you object to the idea of the welfare state generally.

Reasonable Objections

Some people pointed out that the paper did not mention adoption. This was an oversight on my end. I intend to treat an adoption the same as a birth for paid leave purposes. And of course adopted children would receive free child care, free pre-k, free school lunch, and all the rest of it.

The final objection pertained to whether the Family Fun Pack sufficiently promotes equal labor market outcomes between men and women. This objection, which was mostly posed softly, is really only about the paid leave and child care policies as the other 5 policies are irrelevant to the question.

The paper breaks with what you might call the “US liberal policy establishment” on paid leave and child care in two main ways.

First, the paid leave proposal gives each parent in two-parent families 18 weeks of paid leave but then allows them to transfer as many as 14 of those weeks to the other parent. This means 4 of the weeks are “use it or lose it.” This is the normal way these benefits are constructed in Northern Europe but the liberal policy consensus in the US instead favors giving each parent 12 weeks and making all 12 weeks use it or lose it for each parent.

The reason I do it this way, aside from my desire to copy Northern Europe, is because I think it strikes the appropriate balance between respecting people’s preferences and providing families flexibility while also nudging towards having men and women both take time off after the birth of a child. The flexibility is important because families find themselves in all sorts of odd labor market situations that don’t necessarily avail themselves to equal splits of time off. And of course respecting people’s reasonable preferences is a key to any kind of successful governance.

But people object that this will lead to women taking more time off than men, with one prominent critic saying they prefer the gender egalitarian Swedish approach to paid leave despite the fact that the proposal in the paper is the Swedish approach. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to be concerned about whether couples will choose to give more of their parental leave to women than to men as this seems to be the predominant preference anywhere paid leave exists in the world. But there is only so much a use-it-or-lose-it policy can do on this front insofar as it maintains the “lose it” option, which families resistant to such nudging have shown themselves willing to exercise.

It is impossible to say where to optimally strike the balance between constructing a welfare state that respects flexibility and preferences and constructing one that tries to nudge people towards specific cultural practices. But I think the FFP’s paid leave plan, which is modeled off of the most gender egalitarian region of the world, does strike it reasonably.

Second, the child care proposal gives parents an option of free public child care or a home child care allowance, with the allowance being set equal to the per-child wages of child care workers. This goes against the liberal policy consensus, which tends to frown on home child care and stay-at-home parenting more generally.

The objection to this is that it will lead to more stay-at-home parenting than if you only provided a free public child care option. This then will tend to lead to lower labor market participation among women. This too is a reasonable concern, though one where the correct path forward is philosophically unclear. When Gallup asked women with children whether they’d prefer to work or be home caregivers in 2015, they favored home caregiving by 56 percent to 39 percent. For men, the numbers were 26 percent and 72 percent respectively.

I spent more time studying this issue than any other while doing the FFP. My wife and I did a whole podcast episode on it (free version here). Overall, the left in the US and across the world has a fraught history with this specific question. Some have described the home child care allowance as a “trap for women” while others have said it gives women the “freedom to choose.”

For instance, in 1965, the Swedish Social Democratic Women’s Union described the home child care allowance as “an instrument creating equality to guarantee greater freedom of choice to young families, whether they choose to stay at home during the child’s first years or prefer to continue in working life.” Yet, Swedish SAP Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson said just a few decades later that “for women who choose to stay at home, child home care allowance is a setback to equality.” Despite these debates, the program remains in existence and popular in Sweden, Finland, and Norway, which are among the most gender egalitarian countries in the world and which have far higher women’s labor force participation than the US has.

The left has struggled with this question in other contexts as well. Paying stay-at-home child carers is sometimes seen as subjecting such parents to the demands of the earner spouse while not paying them is sometimes seen as a rejection of the longstanding feminist demand that care work be regarded as work and properly compensated. Some even argue that not giving the option and flushing would-be stay-at-home parents into the labor market merely subjects them to another boss — an actual boss — whose potential control over their lives is just as objectionable.

Then there are the classism and (more recently) racism arguments. Some say that the condemnation of stay-at-home parenting among policy elites is a function of the professional class background of those elites, which makes them unable to understand that many working class people reasonably prefer to do home caregiving over the menial jobs they would otherwise be slotted into. Stay-at-home parenting is also most prevalent among Latinas, which has led some to say a refusal to support it is a racist outgrowth of the white-centric policy establishment.

In general, high-level family benefit debates have tended to be proxy battles for the different family structure preferences of liberals and conservatives. Thus, conservatives offer non-refundable Child Tax Credit programs that are intentionally designed to exclude single-mother families, which they disapprove of. And liberals, for their part, typically offer center-based child care programs that are meant to exclude stay-at-home parents, which they disapprove of.

For me, it is critical that we provide financial support to all kinds of families because, whether you like them or not, they will exist. No policy agenda you put forward will end single-parent families or end families with stay-at-home parents even if this or that agenda might move the needle a bit on how many such families exist. But if you move the needle by depriving one of the family types of the resources they need to live comfortably, you are guaranteeing that there will be poverty and inequality in your society.

So ultimately, the FFP is designed to provide equitable financial support to all family types — including single parents, sole earners, and dual earners — in order to have the maximum possible impact on inequality and to maximally achieve the FFP’s goal: making parenthood easy and affordable for everyone.