I, like many people in the United States, have moved beyond being frustrated with how our country runs/is led from Washington, D.C. “Frustrated” implies that things could be otherwise. Right now, it just seems impossible. What I feel is resignation. Two political parties hold all the power, in nearly equal measure. And they absolutely refuse to work with another on any kind of meaningful challenge in our country. Why? Because the Other One is the embodiment of evil (“Fascists,” “Nazis,” “Woke Gang,” “Socialists,” etc.) and to work with Evil, in any way, is to be morally compromised. It’s a really rewarding school of rhetoric that does really well to get you a job in Washington and to keep it. It’s a punishing rhetoric in that, once there, you can do absolutely NOTHING. Or at least not without raw numbers/power. And you almost certainly won’t get enough votes to do that. See: (gestures at… everything)

One thing I had a little window of hope about last year, a little ray of optimism, was about a possible coalition of politicians who were going to take seriously policies that would provide relief and encouragement to American families. Specifically: having a family and keeping them fed and clothed. There are different ways that people from both parties were arriving at this desire. One would talk the language of equality and fairness. The other would talk about being pro-life and pro-family. Demographic decline is a real thing and our country is in the midst of it. Or at least we’re edging towards being “in the midst of it.”

Mitt Romney proposed legislation that would provide cash payments to help families. His program was similar in many ways to President Biden’s program of an expansion and pre-payment of child tax credits. There were important differences, but it was a very similar idea. Neither of them had a work requirement, which was new. It seemed like we were heading towards that reality….

And then Washington happened. Which means… nothing.

I find it so disappointing, so discouraging.

When you look at what our country does to support families with children compared to our economic peers (which is a pretty broad category to account for the fact that we’re the biggest economic power in the world), it is shocking who our national comparables are. They’re a grouping of nations that we would, I think, probably consider “beneath” us. Not that that sentiment is ok ontologically, but certainly, they’re countries that we (rightly) consider ourselves well beyond, in terms of development. Countries closer to our economic output spend two or three times more (or more!) than us on programs that support children and families. We have more we could do… and we do less. For children. In poverty.

Why is this?

One thing is that I think we have a fragmented set of values held by a great many people in this country. I think there are a great many people who would say “I am pro-life. Children are great!” and “People should have traditional, two-parent households” and “It would be great if moms stayed home with children” and “Work is inherently good for all people” and “The state should not pay you to sit on your butt” and “You should work your way out of poverty and the government should not compensate for your bad decisions.”

I agree with almost the entirety of all of those statements (I don’t think poverty works as described in that last one). But there is a lot of information to consider between those statements, where those “ands” are and very rarely any kind of holistic envision that is able to explain and hold in tensions all of them at once. So if you interrogate how all of this is supposed to work out, you kind of just get repeat of the dogma, with no new information or explanation. They become items of faith that you can somehow insist on ALL of these things with no adjustment or explanation.

I think you need to pick some values to prioritize and you need to compromise and order things in such a way that these statements can actually come close to being held together by more than brute assertion. Here’s what I mean:

Prioritize families. What is most important here? Children are good. Stable families are good. They are transformative. The idea that our modern society is conducive, to all people, to have multiple children and even to contemplate having one stay-at-home parent (a mother) is, frankly, laughable for the vast majority of the people who live here. That ideal is a middle-class pipe dream for most people without magically being able to transport to a much different neighborhood or into a very different main income. And the idea that if you just work hard enough and smart enough, you can attain that ideal… that’s a fiction. People don’t like being poor. Do stories exist of people making terrible choices and choosing drugs or terrible short-term purchases or whatever over long-term, smart choices? Yes OF COURSE. But, by and large, most people poverty care that they are in poverty and do not want to remain so.

Do you want them to remain poor? Probably not. But do you want to live in a communist society that radically caps and redistributes all wealth towards a vision of equality? I don’t! And I assume you don’t either! So what does that mean? There will always be people at the bottom of the income chain. Always. Even if they’re smart and work hard and whatever, someone (many someones) is going to be at the bottom of the food chain. It’s the nature of a competitive economy.

So. That being true… prioritize families. Do poor people, who will never have the economic dream that is described as the “American dream,” get to have the dream of a stable, two-parent, multi-child household? Well, some of that is up to them. Of course. But can we use our collective national expenditure to make those conditions more accessible for all Americans, regardless of income or job status? Would it be good for us if a mother can choose to NOT work for the first three or six months of a baby’s life? Would it be good for the baby if that was an option for their mother?

I think it would. I think mothers should be able to be with their babies. And I choose that as an organizing idea around which the other ideas have to orbit. If that’s the prioritization, I have to make compromises elsewhere to make all those statements fit.

Is it good for people to work? Yes! Very much so! God made people for good work. He also made us to be fruitful. If I have to choose, I’d rather have the option, as a society, to support a single mom to work less and be with her developing child than to prioritize working more so she can fulfill her obligations as a worker.

See, what I think happens is that people prioritize the work side of this equation and tack on the pro-life, pro-family side. “Yes! We want you to have babies and have a family…. as long as you can remain a 50hr/week worker.” I think we should re-prioritize: “Yes! We want you to work and earn an income and have a steady job… but we want you to do a good job first of raising your children.”

For many people in poverty, I really do think you have to choose one of the priorities. And I think we have the means to make better choices.

Choose families. Support children. Lift kids out of poverty (which absolutely did happen with the expanded child tax credit and has absolutely been undone with its expiration). Make it as easy as possible to have kids with two parents who can actually afford to work slightly less so they can parent slightly more. If you’re going to compromise, compromise in favor of those families.

Choose families.

I think there are lots of ways to be creative and thoughtful when you think along those lines. And I think there really are creative solutions where you can make all the dots fit, if in slightly altered forms. The “nightmare welfare state” doesn’t have to be the only solution.

But start with the family as the organizing principle. I think it’s a much better place to start.

Unfortunately, Washington appears to still be Washington. And I don’t know when we’ll see a different approach to all of this. It seems like such a no-brainer to me. We could compromise our way to something better than what we have. And it just feels so unlikely now.

That’s a real bummer.