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What family policies would experts like to see in 2024?

Child tax credit, social media regulation, child care support and paid leave all make experts’ list

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

As a new year begins, folks may wonder what policies will impact their families — with great or not-so-great results. So the Deseret News asked people who study family policy, conduct research on families or ponder family life what policies they believe would benefit the greatest number of families in 2024, across the political spectrum.

Here’s what we learned as a new year begins and lawmakers at all levels of government begin to consider the changes they can make.

Low expectations as election looms

President Joe Biden has put forth a number of major reforms that Shawn Fremstad calls a kind of “New Deal for families.” Fremstad, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says what he sees as standouts are a proposal to make the federal child tax Credit “bigger and more inclusive” so that children whose parents have disabilities or are students, among others, get the same benefit as other kids; making child care more affordable for all families by treating it as a public good; and ensuring that parents in every state can take paid leave from work to care for a new child.

Fremstad said Congress “hasn’t delivered on anything for families this year” because of what he calls dysfunction in the House of Representatives. While he’s skeptical much will change before the 2024 election, he said that “it would be wonderful if they could get together on pro-family policies supported by both social conservatives and progressives, like improving the child tax credit.”

Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Deseret News he’s interested to see what comes on paid leave from a bipartisan congressional working group. But he, too, thinks the upcoming election will chill action for a while.

“I don’t expect much of substance will happen in a presidential election year, but if the members of both parties (and both chambers of Congress) who are on the working group can figure out a way to talk about the need to support new parents and sketch out a blueprint for what a successful plan might look like, it could pave the way toward meaningful steps after the dust of the election settles,” he said.

Child tax credit hopes

The child tax credit was mentioned perhaps more than any other policy — and by people across a broad range of political sensibilities.

Brown said that outside of the nation’s capital, he’s watching Utah’s effort to expand its state child tax credit from ages 1-3 to ages 0-5. “That would meaningfully help more parents with young children,” he said.

“I think most scholars agree that the expansion of the child tax credit during COVID was a huge success as an anti-poverty measure and its retraction last year immediately sent more children living below the poverty line. So that would be No. 1,” said Jennifer Glass, president-elect of the Population Association of America and executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families, who is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sociologist Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also supports expanding and extending the child tax credit, though he adds “for working families” to his support.

Success sequence support

Additionally, Wilcox would like to see marriage penalties in means-tested programs serving families with young children eliminated and the government fund public service announcements to teach young people about the success sequence.

That sequence focuses on tackling life in a certain order: Get a high school diploma, get a job, get married and then have children. Many experts believe that sequence of events is more likely to ensure stability and financial success than doing things in a different order, hence its name.

The success sequence is also something that Alan J. Hawkins, manager of the Utah Marriage Commission at Utah State University, wants to see formalized in some way. Besides teaching it to youth and young adults, he said families would benefit from “greater attention to a series of traditional policies to make the success sequence easier.”

Hawkins is also “really on a housing affordability policy kick these days to make the idea of marriage and starting a family seem a little more feasible,” he said.

The cost of family

Making family life affordable is, in fact, key to policies supported by a number of family-life experts.

Wendy Wang, director of research for the Institute for Family Studies, points to a recent article she wrote for the National Review on double-income, no-kids couples and family-friendly policies. She believes that federal policies such as paid parental leave and a generous child tax credit will be helpful to families. She also notes that “the best pro-family policies, according to parents themselves in a new IFS/YouGov poll of Sunbelt states, point to expanding choices for parents and allowing them to raise their children in the way that best fits their values.”

“No. 2 for me personally would be federal paid family leave of four months, with reimbursement capped at a reasonable level for high-income employees. We are shamefully one of only a few nations that forces parents to pay medical costs for childbearing and lose earnings from work while doing so. Then we obsess about our low fertility rate. Duh?” Glass said.

High-quality, affordable child care is top of mind for Sigrid Luhr, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “During the pandemic, we saw how important child care is. Now is the time to implement it in a way that all families can access,” she said. “Offering universal pre-K at a national level would be a huge step in this direction.”

“With changes to abortion access across the country, so much more is needed for maternal and infant health and to support families during pregnancy and postpartum,” said Galena K. Rhoades, executive director of Thriving Families and research professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Psychology. “We need new, well-funded policies that support maternal and infant health — March of Dimes rates the United States as a D+ for maternal and infant health — and policies that combine anti-poverty and family-strengthening initiatives.”

Empower states

Family-related policy isn’t just the task of the federal government, experts said.

Luhr noted that in recent years cities and states including New York City, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma and Georgia have begun offering universal pre-K and said there are efforts in Congress to do likewise. She told the Deseret News that such efforts would benefit children by better preparing them for school and reducing inequalities between them, while helping parents manage work-family conflict.

“These efforts could also help to reduce gender inequality, as women are often left shouldering the burdens of child care when support is unavailable. During the pandemic, we saw that women left the labor market in greater numbers than men, often because they were taking on the extra child care responsibilities at home. Providing low-cost child care options in the form of universal pre-K would therefore be a huge help to parents and especially working mothers,” Luhr said.

“I think Congress should give states more flexibility to provide assistance to working families (under the model we offered in American Renewal), while also requiring states to contribute more funding toward programs,” said Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and poverty scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

She added that “states should be held more accountable for child care regulations. They should be required to show the cost-benefit of quality regulations,” she told the Deseret News.

Mental health and social media

This year’s nationally representative American Family Survey found more than two-thirds of parents think the government should enact policies to protect kids from the negative mental health effects of social media by enforcing age restrictions. But while they’re uneasy when it comes to their kids and social media, they’re generally not sure what else, if anything, should be done.

Utah was the first state to pass legislation limiting teens’ social media use, including consequences, effective March 2024. The Utah Legislature may tweak those rules before they become effective, experts say.

Will those efforts be enough? 

“I think it is pretty obvious that stronger global regulations are vital in terms of social media content oversight to better protect engagers — especially youth and those who struggle with mental health issues — from exposure to mis-, mal- and disinformation, as well as ‘fake news,’” said Don Grant, a Los Angeles-area psychologist, author and researcher, who specializes in technology’s impact on mental health. Among other titles, Grant chairs the American Psychological Association’s Device Management and Intelligence Committee.

He’s also concerned about what he calls “the outrageous trend” of content contributors with no professional mental health training — “influencers and wannabes especially — pontificating about mental health issues other than their own experiences and even offering diagnoses to their followers.” That, he told the Deseret News, “is beyond egregious and significantly dangerous.” Although mental health professionals have tried to counter that, he called it “tremendously concerning, unethical and potentially injurious.”

The trick with regulating social media, he noted, is how to better control media content without compromising First Amendment rights, which he agrees is difficult to navigate. But policies that address those issues make his short list of family-friendly regulation, though he’s skeptical Congress will come up with much, despite upcoming hearings with Big Tech CEOs on their failure to protect kids online.

Grant said that the wide availability of artificial intelligence “seems to have superseded the social media protection and safety silo.”