Child care, paid leave, tax and other economic relief, as well as help battling hunger and poverty form a to-do list for Congress and a wish list from family experts.

When the Deseret News first asked sociologists and demographers who ponder family issues how Congress could help families in 2023, the U.S. House of Representatives was scrapping internally over who should be Speaker of the House. Today, we know it’s Kevin McCarthy. But the division among Republicans, who control the House, has experts across a broad ideological spectrum unconvinced that family policy will see much action in the upcoming session of Congress.

Patrick T. Brown, a family policy analyst and a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, put it this way: “I wouldn’t expect a ton of action from this Congress. As we are seeing play out in real time, even doing the bare minimum of governing is going to be a challenge in this environment.”

Still, he said, “there could be some small-ball items that make it across the finish line.”

Experts provided their own wish lists for legislative action.

Brown, for instance, would “love Congress to make employer-side child care credits a little more generous, particularly for firms that provide child care onsite.”

He also noted that “If Congress does nothing, the Child Tax Credit is scheduled to be cut in half in 2025, so both parties should use these next two years to coalesce around their plans for a pro-family approach to the tax code.”

Here, in no particular order, are some of the ideas experts said would help families:

Child care

“What we desperately need is financial support for child care, either directly to parents or to providers to shore up wages,” said Barbara J. Risman, sociology professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and editor of the journal Gender & Society. “We cannot have a functioning economy without child care (that’s) affordable and accessible.” 

Richard J. Petts, a professor of sociology at Ball State University, believes America has a “structural problem” with its child care system. That, combined with a lack of paid sick leave, “creates this huge burden for mothers in particular” of needing to stay home whenever there’s an issue with child care, to the point that some women pull back on employment to manage care. Petts said improving access and helping families meet the high cost of child care would be “huge.”

Protecting kids online

“The biggest prospect for pro-family action in the next two years, with support on both sides of the aisle, is giving parents better tools to protect their kids online,” Brown said. He noted that Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are collaborating on bipartisan legislation that “would be an important first step, and other members of Congress have even stronger ideas to make sure families are more empowered to keep their kids from running into trouble online.”

Paid leave

Parental and medical paid leave are valuable tools to help families thrive, according to Petts, who called paid leave and job flexibility “two things we’re really going to try to make a pitch to get policymakers to pay attention to.” 

That state and federal lawmakers prioritize making paid family and medical leave available to all families in 2023 is a hope shared by Cynthia Osborne, professor of early childhood education and policy and director of Vanderbilt University’s Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center. She said that would improve the health and well-being of both parents and children.

Upward mobility

Congress on a bipartisan basis should prioritize upward mobility for low-income kids, said Scott Winship, senior fellow and director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute. A few years ago, he proposed an Opportunity, Evidence and Innovation Office within the White House and an independent Opportunity Advisory Commission to advise Congress on mobility policy and issues — similar to the Council of Economic Advisers and the Joint Economic Committee, both created almost 80 years ago to prioritize full employment.

He thinks a White House office should fund and evaluate demonstration projects and other state and local efforts, its budget “scaled to the importance of the task at hand.” By design, it would “rigorously and ruthlessly” evaluate program success based on measured outcomes. The advisory commission would evaluate federal programs and advise Congress on which should be created, cut, expanded or dropped.

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“We’ve made great progress reducing poverty,” said Winship, “but we’ve made little to no progress increasing upward intergenerational mobility. Too many disadvantaged kids grow up to raise disadvantaged kids.”

Work that works

Besides paid leave and child care subsidies, Sigrid Luhr, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at University of Illinois Chicago, would like more protections against unstable, unpredictable work schedules, especially in low-wage jobs. “These schedules make it harder for workers to arrange child care for their children and are associated with worse health outcomes for workers, greater work-life conflict and other hardships,” she said.

Janet Gornick, a political science and sociology professor at CUNY Graduate Center, said that while shift workers are a significant part of the U.S. workforce, essential to service industries like retail, hospitality and home health, wages are often low and schedules erratic.

Most of them — cashiers, waitresses, nail technicians and home health aides, among others — are female, immigrants and/or people of color, said Gornick, who directs CUNY’s Stone Center for Socio-Economic Inequality.

Besides often-low wages, many find their shifts canceled unexpectedly, straining their finances. She said a working mom could hire child care, pay to take the bus to work and then instead be sent home, unpaid.

She’s among those who believe lawmakers should provide better protection for shift workers, including knowing their schedules well in advance, being able to ask for changes and being paid for scheduled shifts that are shortened or canceled.

Luhr said the Schedules that Work Act, introduced into the Senate, could help families a lot.

Student loan debt

Her own research says many young adults put off having children or getting married because of student loan debt, said Arielle Kuperberg, associate professor of sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at University of North Carolina Greensboro. She said uncertainty over President Biden’s plan to cancel debt “dragged on and brought light to the problem of student debt,” resulting in many young adults choosing to forego college entirely, “greatly restricting their future options, but in some cases now, putting them on firmer financial footing.”

Student debt, per Kuperberg, doesn’t just affect young, highly educated adults. “There are also an increasing number of older adults who went back to school later in life and especially those who helped cosign on their children’s loans, who are not able to retire.” She notes studies show an increase in Social Security retirement wages being garnished for student debt. 

“Restoring higher public education funding so that education is free of cost and reducing or canceling student loans debt would not only help those who are college-educated,” but all families with children they hope can have the opportunity to go to college without creating future financial instability, she said.

School lunch

Petts said free school lunches during COVID reduced families’ financial burdens and worries. “I don’t know what that cost on a government level, but it just dramatically helped families” and Congress should consider it, he added.

Child tax credit

Many family experts believe the child tax credit directly helps families rise from poverty.

“Congress needs to act to directly support parenthood by reforming and expanding the child tax credit into a program that provides more support to more families,” said demographer Lyman Stone, a fellow with the Institute for Family Studies.

Amid multiple “decent proposals for how to do this, the real worry is recalcitrant legislators making the perfect the enemy of the good in the service of careerist partisanship,” he said. “An imperfect or incomplete CTC reform which nonetheless improves on the status quo is worth doing.”

Osborne, of Vanderbilt, said that “funding a monthly child tax credit for all families would help reduce poverty, food insecurity and housing instability, as well as improve health and wellbeing of the children and parents.” She believes that, along with paid leave, would help parents work and care for their children, improving both short- and long-term outcomes for families.

While he described himself as “fairly skeptical that this Congress will be able to pass any meaningful family-related legislation in the next two years, nonetheless, I would like to see a permanent increase in the child tax credit and a continuation of the monthly cash payments to families that were instituted in 2021,” said Daniel L. Carlson, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies. 

“I think that Congress should also work on a universal public pre-K program for children 3-5,” said Carlson, deputy editor of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Absent some real movement that makes the Child Tax Credit fully inclusive for parents and caregivers, I hope liberals and moderates hold their ground on not renewing business tax breaks,” said Shawn Fremstad, senior adviser and director of law and economic policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Others disagree. Said University of Chicago professor Bruce D. Meyer, “Don’t replace the CTC with a child allowance (what people are calling an expanded or fully refundable CTC). It is a universal basic income for families with children with all its bad incentives and poor targeting.”

Marriage penalties

Stone would like marriage penalties removed from policy. He said Congress should consider requiring the Congressional Budget Office to “score how any legislative budget score would influence marriage penalties.” His recommendations include earned income tax credit reforms that simplify “hybridization of family support and work incentive,” streamlining the credit to support work equally regardless of family status and removing what he calls huge existing marriage penalties.

“This means reducing benefits for single and childless people or expanding them for parents and married people,” Stone said. His preference is to “greatly expand” the child tax credit by rolling all of the earned income tax credit’s child-related money into it “with a less stringent work requirement, then streamline the EITC to more directly support entrance into work.”

Mandating work

The Deseret News found strong disagreement among experts over putting work requirements in different policies, including the child tax credit and food stamps.

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The Farm Bill is up for reauthorization and some conservatives want to limit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid — formerly food stamps — to those who work a certain number of hours. “I worry that we could end up with policies that make it more difficult for working-class married and partnered parents to (get) those supplemental food benefits,” Fremstad said. “The 1996 welfare bill made it pretty much impossible for two-parent families to get Temporary Assistance, and it would be a real blow to working-class family stability for SNAP to go down a road where fathers need to move for their children to get help from the program.”

Poverty scholar Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute argues that work requirements for parents help raise families out of poverty. “Government assistance that is not well targeted (like the expanded child tax credit) can have long-term harmful effects, such as reduced parental employment,” she said. 

She praised a program that provided cash to families of infants the first year of their life, highlighted in PNAS. “This program is well-targeted because it goes to children in the earliest years when parental employment is less important. However, phasing it out is important to avoid any long-term negative effects that might offset the positive aspects of the income transfer,” Rachidi said.

Abortion

Kuperberg also believes that the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has put politicians between doctors and women and Congress should restore the right to privacy. “We are seeing stories of women who are having catastrophic health results because of complications in pregnancy and doctors being hesitant to offer care,” she said.

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