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Romney’s proposal for a pro-family, pro-work and pro-birth America

The Family Security Act 2.0 helps defray the cost of raising children for low- and mid-income families, the Utah senator says

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Alex Cochran/Getty, Deseret News

Family policies need an overhaul to encourage marriage and stability and help American families meet the challenges of the 21st century. We need policies that are pro-family, pro-work and pro-birth.

That was the message from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who said his revised Family Security Act 2.0 does just that. Thursday morning, he discussed the bill at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

The proposal strengthens family finances while encouraging both marriage and employment. And if a woman finds herself pregnant and unsure she can afford to have a child, it can bolster her confidence that she can, Romney said of the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Birthrates and marriage rates are both in decline in the United States, according to Romney, who said people aren’t having the number of children they’d like to in part because they don’t think they can afford to do so. He’s among a growing number of officials and policy watchers voicing fear of societal and economic challenges associated with a shrinking birthrate.

“To be clear here, I don’t think the federal government’s policies should be to try to increase incentives to have people have more children than they want but instead should find a way to bridge the gap between what people would like to have for their family and what they are able to afford,” he said.

During the presentation, his office tweeted key points. “Working Americans should be able to start a family, raise their children freely and feel empowered to earn more or get married without worry about losing benefits,” one tweet read. “The Family Security Act 2.0 should be the pro-work, pro-marriage, pro-life reform of the 21st Century.”

In introducing Romney, the institute’s Robert Doar called Romney’s effort “increasingly relevant both to American society and the conservative movement. Families are the most basic institution of American life. And like many of our institutions, they are in decline.”

Romney designed the bill in consultation with others to help reverse some of the trends.

In a nutshell, the Family Security Act 2.0:

  • Provides pregnant women with $700 a month for the last four months of their pregnancy. Families would receive $350 a month for children under age 6 and $250 a month for school-age children.
  • Encourages work by requiring parent(s) to have earned an annual income of at least $10,000 to receive the full benefit. Those with smaller incomes could get smaller benefits.
  • Caps income levels to receive the benefit for single-parent families at $200,000 and $400,000 for a married-couple family — income guidelines already established for the existing child tax credit and the earned income tax credit.

The program, which would be administered by the Social Security Administration because that agency has lots of experience paying out benefits, Romney said, would be funded by eliminating the child tax credit and adjusting the family portion of the earned income tax credit. Those steps would free up $160 billion for monthly payments under the Family Security Act 2.0.

“We get rid of programs and instead fund something that works better, that’s simpler, that’s easier to administer, easier to understand, that comes to people when they need it. And so, I think, a very substantial improvement of what we have now,” Romney said.

A new approach?

The financing mechanism, which would be cost-neutral, bucks the trend in Washington — and also among progressives — of simply adding new programs on top of old ones to meet goals, he said. “That is the approach Washington has taken time and time again and it’s resulted in a morass of programs which are highly ineffective and in some respects are counterproductive.”

He listed some of the programs designed to help vulnerable families, including the child tax credit, temporary aid to needy families, the child and dependent care tax credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,  the earned income tax credit and Section 8 housing, among others.

“It’s a mind-numbing list of programs for a new, pregnant mom to navigate. It’s expensive for the government. In some respects, it creates incentives that are counter to our national interest. Administratively, it’s massive,” he said, promising the new proposal is more straightforward.

Romney acknowledged that the act is not meant to take care of all the issues. “But it takes on a couple of them and makes them work better.”

Better off married

Marriage is the foundation of families, and its value has historically been a “bipartisan political talking point,” Romney said. Yet in recent years, it’s become highly politicized.

He said — and his office tweeted — “To strengthen families, federal policies should promote marriage — or at the very least, not penalize those who choose to marry.”

While a strong family unit is “essential to the success of children in our society,” declining marriage and birthrates are among America’s 21st-century challenges. Romney said he wants to encourage marriage. “There’s no question that’s a better setting in which to raise a child — study after study.”

But he added that “if a single mom doesn’t feel she wants to marry the person that got her pregnant and she’s making a decision as to whether or not to keep the child, I want her to know that she has the capacity to keep the child … and the financial wherewithal to be able to bring the child into the world.”

He said choosing whether or not to have a child is a complex and personal calculation involving lots of factors. But economics is certainly a key one.

Marriage as a cornerstone of family was something the country agreed on across party lines “until very recent years,” he said, noting Bill Clinton in his 1994 State of the Union lamented that within years, half of children would be born into families where there has been no marriage.  

At the time, Romney said, 22% of mothers ages 25 to 29 were single.

He quoted then-Sen. Barack Obama from 2008, saying too many fathers are absent in family life. “They’ve abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”

At that point, the share of mothers ages 25 to 29 who were single had risen to 33%, up 11% from when Clinton made his remarks. Today, Romney noted, the number has climbed to 40% and is going higher.

That decline in marriage is steepest among low-income families, a shift Romney called “in no small measure the result of federal policies that make it harder for low-income families to marry.” It reminds him, he said, of when the welfare system locked people into intergenerational poverty.

Future considerations

Romney said he hopes to add Democrat names to the bill’s list of sponsors and has had quiet conversations, but “we haven’t begun bipartisan negotiations on this until (the “Build Back Better” act) is gone, because they feel understandably that they don’t want to be negotiating with us on a plan which is contrary to what the president put forward until it’s gone.”

Doar asked whether the program, administered as it would be by the federal government, would weaken ties people in need have to in-person contact with state programs that provide counseling and guidance — a notion Romney rebuffed.

They will get those services within other assistance programs, he said.

Meanwhile, the monthly payments are a family program, designed for middle-income families, too, not just those who are low-income.

An audience member asked Romney what he predicts for younger generations in the next 20 years. He said young people need to get more involved in politics, in campaigns and in voting. It’s time for older folks to yield the stage, he said. “Unfortunately, elected officials overwhelming respond to the concerns they’re hearing from voters,” he said. And those “typically are short-term things and there’s some long-term issues we need to address.”

In response to Romney’s presentation, American Enterprise Institute poverty scholar Angela Rachidi favored the work incentive and warned of the consequences of not pushing employment as policymakers try to help low-income families. She called employment the “cornerstone of reducing poverty. It offers one of the clearest paths out of poverty.”

Panelist Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation agreed, calling past policies like the pre-welfare-reform Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which cut benefits if someone worked, “a disaster” for families.

But Elaine Maag of the Urban Institute wondered if the definition of work is too narrow. She said people seeking an education are also seeking a better life and shouldn’t be excluded from child policy benefits. Families have different situations that might disqualify them unfairly from receiving help, she said: grandparents raising grandkids or people with disabilities who are unable to work. “I don’t think we should just leave them out.” 

She said her research found that fears the child tax credit paid monthly the last half of 2021 would discourage work didn’t become reality. Comparing Decembers year over year, she said. “Folks were just as likely to go to work if they’d been receiving the credit.”

Patrick T. Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Center said the 2.0 version of Romney’s proposal, by adding an earned-income requirement, addressed the bill’s biggest political vulnerability and increased its likelihood of being acceptable across party lines.