Charles Bruner served in the Iowa legislature from 1978 to 1990 and was founding director of the Child and Family Policy Center from 1989 through 2016. For the last six years, he headed a Health Equity and Young Children initiative focusing on primary child health care for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Democrats prioritize investing in children but don’t stress the importance of parents in raising the next generation. Republicans do the opposite.
The electorate wants both.
Until we make children’s issues part of our political dialogue, we will not do either.
DEMOCRATS DO MUCH FOR CHILDREN, BUT SAY LITTLE ABOUT IT
Prior to the 2020 Iowa caucuses, I talked with or questioned eighteen Democratic presidential contenders: Michael Bennett, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tom Steyer, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.
I told them children were in jeopardy of growing up less healthy and less equipped to lead in a world economy than their parents and asked them what they would do to change this prognosis. They responded showing knowledge of the problem—from the importance of brain development in early childhood to the impact of stress and trauma on development, and current educational disparities by race and place as well as the need to invest more in child health, education, and early care. Not only that, they were enthusiastic and authentic about discussing children and our future.
Yet the candidates generally didn’t mention this topic in their stump speeches. Nor was it included in the campaign issue statements on their websites. Children’s issues didn’t come up in the multiple presidential candidate debates during the Democratic primary.
Although he did not present it as such in his campaign, President Joe Biden proposed transformational investments in children and families—across health, family economic security, and pre-K through college education—as part of his Build Back Better plan. Democrats in Congress responded by including an expanded and fully refundable child tax credit, child care subsidies and support, and investments in pre-K through post-secondary education in the American Rescue Plan Act.
Those policy reduced child poverty in half and began to build a new infrastructure for children’s development. Biden and Congressional Democrats nearly succeeded in making such investments permanent, despite receiving no Republican votes in either chamber. They fell two Democratic votes short in the Senate.
It’s clear that Democrats prioritize investing federal government resources in children and families. But they say little about that, or about parents’ role in raising the next generation. Although Democratic campaign messaging usually includes specific plans for seniors, veterans, small businesses, rural communities, and other constituencies, it’s rare for candidates to highlight children’s issues.
In short, Democrats believe the government should invest in children, but they do not speak about that or to the rights and responsibilities of parents in doing so.
REPUBLICANS TOUT “PRO-FAMILY” AGENDA WITHOUT INVESTING IN FAMILIES
Republicans tend to do the opposite. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds provided a classic example when she delivered the GOP response to Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address. While touting her state’s tax cuts and curbing the size of government, Reynolds also stressed that Republicans believe “parents matter” and are leading a “pro-family” agenda.
In Iowa and other states with GOP trifectas, Republicans define being “pro-family” as supporting vouchers and choice in education, while restricting what public education can teach and not “indoctrinating” children. Many of these states have not adopted Medicaid expansion options under the Affordable Care Act, such as expanded post-partum coverage for mothers or extending Medicaid coverage to parents below the poverty level.
When Donald Trump was president and Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, the GOP enacted the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. That law provided major tax cuts, primarily directed to wealthy Americans and corporations. The revenue reductions further limited government capacity to make infrastructural investments in children. No Democrats voted for the bill. While Republicans may support some specific investments in children and families, they do not prioritize such spending and often oppose it.
While children do not vote (the often-spouted reason for not talking about them in campaigns), their parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles do. Adults care a lot about children and their future. This public strongly agrees that “government has no responsibility greater than ensuring the next generation grows up healthy and prepared to lead.” Polls consistently show that voters want government to invest more, not less, in children across health, education, and economic security and opportunity.
While Republican leaders are stressing that “parents matter” and they are pursuing a “pro-family” agenda, they have a narrow and restrictive definition of parents and family. Their policies represent the beliefs of only some families.
A PRO-FAMILY AGENDA EMBRACING ALL FAMILIES
Democrats would do well to advocate for a “pro-family” agenda which includes all families. That would include those marginalized by race and discrimination, those with LGBTQ members who want society to be inclusive of them, those who need health insurance but cannot afford to pay its full costs, and those who simply believe in a strong public education system that teaches children to think for themselves (and not just as their parents might want).
Such policies would include teaching U.S. history in a way that recognizes racial, gender, and economic discrimination and exploitation. National polls have shown a strong majority supports both public education and the teaching of our country’s full history.
I believe deliberative dialogue on how society and therefore government can best support children and their development can get us to make the investments in children that we need.
If Democrats insist on this dialogue, I think they will find newfound strength and resonance with a good share of those white, older, less educated, and rural voters where the biggest shifts in voting have occurred. Democrats have the right investment priorities already; they just need to talk about them in terms of values.
At least one Republican scholar recognizes his party’s vulnerability in this respect. A fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, Patrick Brown sees Republicans as needing to prioritize investments in children and families at the same time as they reinforce their family values. In a recent guest column for the New York Times on “What Republican Parents Really Want,” Brown wrote:
But the center of gravity in the Republican Party is still more comfortable picking culture war fights than offering policy solutions. A true party for parents needs to provide something for their pocketbooks as well as for their values. Republicans […] need to understand that a pro-family agenda that doesn’t provide material support to families will be, at best, half-baked. […]
College-educated Republican parents, for example, would especially like to see elected officials focusing on more issues like promoting the so-called success sequence (that is, earn at least a high school diploma, get a job and then marry before having any children) to high schoolers, enforcing the paying of child support and keeping kids from getting access to pornography online.
Republican parents without a college diploma support those ideas, too. But they are much more likely to support actual spending for families — a full child tax credit to every family with a worker present, assistance in paying for child care, social spending on pregnant mothers and elimination of tax code provisions and safety net policies that are more generous to couples who live together than those who marry.
For Democrats, advocating for investments in children and families and articulating an “all families” agenda could be both good policy and good politics.
Not only is there broad voter support for such investments and concern over the future of children if those investments are not made, a very significant share of the voting electorate (one in five) have or have had careers in the very occupations where such investments need to be made: teachers, nurses, early care and education staff, and front-line health and community workers. They are good messengers and respected members of virtually all communities in the country—urban or rural, affluent or poor, older or younger, working class or college-educated, predominantly white or racially and ethnically diverse.
In fact, directing some campaign efforts toward this kind of message may offer a path for Democrats to regain some of the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but favored Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Patrick Brown obviously sees this as an opportunity for Republicans to broaden the party’s base. I think, though, that GOP candidates will have a difficult time pivoting to advocating for these kind of investments. If they do, will find that this still plays into Democratic hands, if Democrats take on the issue.
Whether Brown or Bruner is correct, of course, depends upon what both parties and their candidates do and how that resonates. Either of us could be wrong on where the partisan benefit would accrue from elevating such issues in the 2024 election. Either way, however, children, their families, and our society would benefit from that attention.