The end of Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers have said since the Supreme Court overturned the longstanding abortion ruling on Friday, must be the beginning of a new era of generosity toward parents in America. For many, that undoubtedly means individual or church-organized care, but for some, it includes an embrace of federal family policy. This is not the first time there’s been a conservative push for “pro-family” reform, but the movement seems to have more wind in its sails than in years past.
“The end of Roe will require a new type of politics,” argued Patrick T. Brown of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in The New York Times last month, pointing specifically to a plan by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) as an example of the envisioned agenda.
That plan, which Rubio has been promoting since the Dobbs decision dropped, includes an expanded Child Tax Credit, more funding for several social programs, and, as its flagship, an unusual parental leave program. The gist of the leave idea is that parents could choose to receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave after birth or adoption by drawing early Social Security benefits. Several decades down the line, to compensate, they’d choose to either delay retirement by the same number of weeks or receive reduced payments for five years. Participation would be voluntary and available to at least some stay-at-home parents. And because Social Security payments are progressive, benefits would be proportionately higher for lower-income families who can least afford to take leave without pay.
It’s still unclear if the Rubio-Romney plan will indeed become a GOP priority. And though proponents like Chris Rufo have praised the leave program as “cost neutral,” the package as a whole would be quite costly. Even if the parental leave proposal could succeed as a stand-alone item, most of the other pieces stand no chance of federal passage—not without a new president and congressional majority, anyway. This new politics, if it’s coming, won’t come before 2025.
If this leave plan sounds familiar, that’s because it’s nearly the same proposal as the one touted by Rubio and former first daughter Ivanka Trump in 2018. It didn’t catch on among Republicans then and instead caught flak from the left for “penaliz[ing] parents” instead of committing to a universal family leave plan tied to new taxes on the rich. For Reason, Shikha Dalmia dubbed it “a clever idea that certainly avoids some of the problems with rival parental leave plans” but panned the idea, writing, “it isn’t like Social Security has a ton of spare cash lying around to dole out to people other than retirees.”
Indeed, Social Security is already expected to begin paying reduced benefits in 2034, and early payments for parental leave would have to come from somewhere, perhaps by accelerating that reduction or raising federal taxes or debt. If Social Security is gone or much diminished by the time millennials and younger retire, there may never be any payouts for us to delay or reduce.
In either scenario, bringing these payments forward arguably isn’t cost-neutral after all. Yet, as a taxpayer of childbearing age who won’t retire before 2034, there’s a real appeal here even if this proposal doesn’t work out exactly as planned. It’s functionally a small tax cut for new parents—a chance to claw back some of the payroll taxes I otherwise expect to never see again. My own Social Security payments will be drastically reduced, if they materialize at all, three or four decades from now whether this parental leave program happens or not. Rubio’s plan would at least let me recoup a little of the thousands upon thousands of dollars I’ve paid for retirement payments I’ll likely never enjoy.
The rest of the Rubio family agenda, such as we know of it (the bill text for the whole package does not seem to have been released), is even more of a mixed bag. Expanding the child tax credit and the adoption tax credit is probably the most politically viable of the bunch, though of course, the credits aren’t offset by any spending cuts. The expanded funding for social programs will be too little (or too religious) to garner most Democrats’ support and too expensive for most Republicans.
Undoubtedly most controversial is Rubio and Romney’s proposal that the federal government fund pro-life pregnancy centers “by reallocating federal funds from organizations that perform or refer women for abortions.” Eliminating federal funding for abortion providers (whether to directly pay for abortions or, because money is fungible, to support these organizations at all) has been a pro-life cause for years on grounds of conscience—but also a source of deep contention. Perhaps inevitably in our era of negative partisanship, Rubio’s proposal would not simply eliminate the funding but invert its political polarization.
Maybe there’s a family policy yet to be crafted that could garner broad support from the American public—or clear the often higher bar of bipartisan backing in Washington. I don’t know what it would be nor, I suspect, does anyone else. But the end of Roe seems to have further spurred demand for a viable family policy, and the Rubio agenda isn’t it.