SALT LAKE CITY —  A global pandemic, protests over race issues and police brutality, natural disasters coast to coast — 2020 will linger in the minds of American families as a strange and challenging year.

Public policy can help or hurt families cope during trying times. So the Deseret News asked experts from respected organizations and universities a simple, open-ended question: “What’s the policy Congress could enact that would be most helpful for families — and why?”

Some didn’t choose just one; and needs and solutions overlap. But experts agree diverse family-friendly policies are needed. Here are their answers, in order of how many mentioned the policy:

Affordable child care

“The most helpful policy would be to provide subsidized universal child care. Child care costs rival cost of tuition at 4-year colleges in the U.S. and the average worker spends 25% of their annual income on child care. To have a thriving economy, we need care supports for families not only to disperse the cost of raising children, which is a public good, but also to alleviate the immense stress of work-family conflict that falls especially on mothers,” said Daniel L. Carlson, associate professor of family, health and policy in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah.

Subsidizing high-quality child care for all middle- and lower-income families would benefit children, families and the economy, said Clare Huntington, the Joseph M. McLaughlin Professor of Law at Fordham Law School.

“Affordable child care would help more parents join the labor force. For those parents who already work but struggle to cover the skyrocketing costs of child care — many, many Americans — child care subsidies would enable these parents to bring home a greater share of their paycheck, helping them cover other critical family expenses. And high quality child care would support child development during early childhood — the foundational period for future learning and child well-being,”  she said.

“The pandemic is shining a light on one of the greatest family needs, affordable and stable child care. That need — along with the value of quality early childhood education — is long-standing, but it is clearer to more people now,” said Robert Crosnoe, associate dean and Rapoport Centennial Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

“What I think would benefit families most is government policies that extend the public elementary school system down several years to cover both early child care and early childhood education. That is an investment in parents to help them be more active participants in the labor force (and to simply stay sane juggling everything) that doubles as a foundational investment in the educational attainment of their children. In policy terms, that is a dual-generation initiative,” he said.

“Of course, this policy agenda is really in service of families with children, which do not represent all families,” he concluded, “but I think that serving them helps the country more broadly.”

Universal child care is an important engine of economic security for families and gender equality for those in families, said Sarah Damaske, associate professor of sociology, labor and employment relations, and women’s studies and associate director of the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. “I think we see how clearly the inability to find care pulls women out of work and also how the availability of full-time, quality child care normalizes women’s continued employment. I think this is particularly important for lower SES (socioeconomic status) women, whose participation in the labor market is often more tenuous, because the costs to remaining employed can be so high for them.”

She said availability of universal full-time child care would help normalize paid employment, making it “less of an agonizing decision that women have to make, but simply something that happens, because there is already a system set up to support it.”

Congress could provide “child care which protects children and facilitates the work force in dual-career and single-parent families,” said Dawn O. Braithwaite, professor of communication studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and senior research fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Health care access for low-income families

But Braithwaite’s top priority is health care: “Preserving and expanding health care could not be more important for families.”

Kevin Shafer, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, believes universal health care is a must.

“America has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. It’s difficult to have two-parent families when many of those parents may not even walk out of the hospital with their newborn,” said Shafer, also Canadian studies coordinator at BYU’s Kennedy Center for International Studies. “Working class and poor Americans die 15 years earlier, on average, than middle- and high-income Americans. In some parts of the United States, our infant mortality rates look more like the developing world than the richest country on earth. Many children have unnecessary developmental delays because they cannot afford to get help for them.”

Shafer said lack of health care strains families and ties directly to “a broken, unequal health care system. My own research shows that Canadian fathers are more involved with their families, in part, because they have access to health care that helps them be healthier, less health limited, and have more time to spend on family life — even when they have serious health limitations.”

“Right now, it’s health care,” said Stephanie Coontz, professor at Evergreen State College and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “This is essential not only for the many laid-off families that have lost their access to health care, but also for the many families that never got it through their jobs. 

Coontz added, “One of the lessons that many countries in Western Europe drew from the last great pandemic 100 years ago was that, in cases of infectious diseases, NO ONE is safe if EVERYONE doesn’t have access to health protection and care, along with sick leave to prevent them from exposing others.”

Galena K. Rhoades would like to see Medicaid extended to a year, not just 60 days, after a baby is born. “The short of it is that mothers can’t get adequate postpartum care, including mental health support, under the current Medicaid guidelines,” said Rhoades, program director of MotherWise and a research professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Denver.

Paid parental leave

“Congress needs to pass a family leave bill that Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds can use. Too often (family) leave policies are exclusively the domain of the middle and upper classes. We should pass a bill that has broad utility,” said Shafer, who points to Québec as a good model in terms of eligibility, program generosity and how it gets paid for.

Others also listed paid parental leave as an important priority, including Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and Rhoades at the University of Denver.

“The lack of state or federal support for family paid leave (e.g., after a baby is born) for hourly/low-wage workers means that children are put at risk for all sorts of short- and long- term problems because they don’t receive adequate care during a key (perhaps the most important) developmental stage for them and families,” said Rhoades.

Child allowance

Andrew Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, favors a child allowance — monthly payments to parents for each child.

He cites a report by The Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children Living in Poverty by Half in 10 Years that said child poverty in the U.S. could be decreased by 50% by a combination of work-oriented and income support programs.

“A child allowance would put more money into the hands of low-income and middle-income parents more effectively than most other programs,” said Cherlin.

Stone, at the Institute for Family Studies, would prefer an allowance of $1,000 per month per child, capped at three children for single filers or six for married filers. Such an allowance would “dramatically reduce child poverty, increasing equality of opportunity for kids. It would ease family budgets, giving families more choices about how to arrange work and family life. It would directly support childbearing and childrearing, and thus facilitate people having the number of births they want to have.”

He said the filer structure would “serve to limit costs slightly, address worries about ‘having kids for the money,’ explicitly support the transition to marriage for higher-parity women and ensure that upwards of 90% of kids would receive generous support.”

Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit

“I would say the expansion of the EITC to cover single-headed households and those households that have multiple, low-income earners (usually immigrants),” said Camille M. Busette, senior fellow and director of race, prosperity and inclusion at Brookings Institution. “This is a validated policy for lifting families out of poverty and has bipartisan support.”

Dump marriage penalties

Eliminate the marriage penalty by doubling the threshold for all means-tested programs serving low-income families!” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and scholar at both the Institute for Family Studies and American Enterprise Institute.

Stone, too, supports eliminating marriage penalties in taxes and benefits.

Assure food security

“Right now my answer is (and it might have been different a year ago) assuring food security. Too many children are going hungry in this country. And with fewer children in schools to access food from schools, the families have to rely on food banks in their communities,” said Ellen Wartella, the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. “Indeed, we should have a much better program to feed all of our lower-income families.  For a country as wealthy as ours, this is scandalous.”

Test for and trace COVID-19

“I guess my response would be that we should implement an ambitious national testing and tracing program to get the spread of the coronavirus under control,” said Scott Winship, resident scholar and director of poverty studies at American Enterprise Institute. “That would let us reopen the remaining businesses and schools and colleges safely, allow people to return to the workplace, and get back to a strong economy.”

More financial support in face of pandemic

“Get direct and immediate relief money to the ordinary people who have lost their jobs or small businesses, or who live in regions where people need to stay home so that we can stop the spread of this pandemic,” said Evergreen College’s Coontz. “And if that means asking the billionaires who have actually been MAKING money during this emergency to put up with a one-time wealth tax, well, that’s what would have been called patriotism in World War II.”