SALT LAKE CITY — Americans pondering whether President Donald Trump has helped families during his nearly four years in office are finding the answer depends on which policies they like.
But nearly everyone points to paid parental leave for federal employees as a positive step toward helping families. Many experts have pushed for a far-reaching, universal federal leave policy, but they say this is finally a start.
“That’s the first time that there’s been a program, at least at the federal level,” said Daniel L. Carlson, associate professor of family, health and policy in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah.
There’s less agreement on the extent that policies during Trump’s term have been family-friendly.
During the just-concluded national GOP convention, first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump lauded the president’s work on behalf of families, noting “the largest-ever increase of child care funding,” an increase in the child tax credit, and creation of the Farmers to Family Food Box Program.
“Recently he took dramatic action to cut the cost of prescription drugs despite fielding angry calls from the CEOs of nearly every major pharmaceutical company. Now when we see attack ads paid for by big pharma, my dad smiles and says to me, ‘You know? We’re doing something really right if they’re hitting us so hard,’” she said.
The president signed four executive orders on July 24. One is aimed at lowering the cost of certain drugs given intravenously in medical settings — an order The New York Times in late August said no one had yet seen. Another he held back to negotiate with drug companies, but no apparent action on it has taken place. The third seeks lower prices on epinephrine and insulin for low-income folks, while the last one allows some drugs to be imported.
All of them have to go through a lengthy rule-making process that hasn’t begun, so the details and their future are far from certain, according to news reports.
Others looking for substantial policy to help American families are not as enthusiastic about his tenure so far, including those hoping for paid parental leave for workers outside the federal government.
“The Trump administration was a disappointment when it came to family policy,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist and director of The National Marriage Project and an Institute for Family Studies scholar, who typically champions moderate and conservative policy. “We made limited progress on the child tax credit, but otherwise the Trump administration failed to deliver on key family policy objectives like paid parental leave.”
Potential cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other programs that form a social safety net have sparked concern from older Americans.
And a very unusual year, courtesy of the novel coronavirus, has called attention to programs and services that might have been taken for granted. When schools and businesses sent people home, it didn’t take long for folks to see child care and after-school programs as vital to letting parents work and earn money for their families, as well as fueling the economy.
Appreciation for paid parental leave skyrocketed, too.
In fact, the pandemic has increased broad understanding of how important policy that helps family really is, said Carlson. “Until COVID, I think, family policy has been under the radar.”
Families in pandemic
But deciding if policies help or hurt families is tricky, the determination mired in personal preferences and political philosophies. What helps one family may not help another.
Since the pandemic began, Congress has focused heavily on the economy and family finances.
Angela Hanks, deputy executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive think tank, said that in March Congress and the administration did several things that were “super helpful to struggling families,” including the eviction moratorium and beefed-up unemployment payments. Some families were still struggling, though, when the policies expired.
Trump and Congress also provided direct aid to some families during the pandemic as part of a massive stimulus package. Recently, a second attempt at stimulus has stalled.
Hanks said helping families helps everybody. Meeting basic needs like food and housing security, a decent job and some protection to make sure folks receive a fair wage are not all aimed at family, but have great impact there.
“It allows you to do the normal stuff like paying bills and feeding your kids,” she said. “I am interested in making sure we build a more resilient and more equitable economy. That benefits all of us.”
Individual families can conversely be harmed by policies, including regulation that cuts overtime pay and lets employers have more of the tips servers and other service-industry employees make; and reductions in the national food nutrition program, said Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Glass, professor at the University of Texas-Austin and executive director of the Council on Contemporary Families, said college-age students and their parents have been harmed by policies that make it hard to discharge federally backed student loans. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to weaken programs that offer federal loan forgiveness to teachers, health care professionals and others helping underserved communities, she said.
Hanks hopes for more action on relief that’s “commensurate with the economic crisis we’re in, including restoring things that will have been lost, including a moratorium on eviction, continued forbearance on student loan debt and helping people put food on the table and stay in their homes,” she said.
Stopping evictions and letting cash-strapped tenants skip rent temporarily as people lost jobs didn’t assure evictions wouldn’t eventually occur if renters don’t catch up quickly on payments.
“Families are really struggling right now, but they were struggling before the pandemic and so getting back to where we were pre-COVID isn’t a good enough goal. I think we can do better,” said Taryn Morrissey, author of “Cradle to Kindergarten” and an associate professor of public administration and policy at American University. “We can build a system that serves our children and parents.”
Time with children
In a contentious, partisan atmosphere, paid parental leave has proven to have bipartisan support and it’s a cause close to the heart of the Trump administration. First daughter and policy adviser Ivanka Trump has led that effort, even hosting The White House Child Care and Paid Leave Summit last winter.
So paid leave for federal employees was a victory for proponents of universal child care, too. Beginning Oct. 1, most federal employees will have 12 weeks of paid leave when they have, adopt or foster a child. The leave, resulting from a compromise and contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, does not apply to the rest of the nation’s workers — a fact that frustrates many family policy experts across a swath of political views who’d like universal paid parental leave.
Congress has considered a number of proposals with different funding sources, from a payroll tax to an advance on Social Security benefits. Lawmakers are looking hard at who would get paid leave and how much, as well.
But state and local governments are not necessarily waiting for the feds to lead out on family policy.
“I would say that state and city governments have done far more for families over the past four years than the federal government,” said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and author of several books on American family life. “Many of them instituted paid leave policies that have been a huge help to working mothers and fathers and have been documented to improve child health and well-being. Others raised the minimum wage and since many young parents with children only make minimum wage, this is definitely a family-friendly change — and especially necessary when so many minimum wage workers are essential workers, such as nursing home orderlies.”
Child care is high on Fremstad’s list of policies that help families.
Funding increased to roughly $9 billion this year for child care. The money flows to states as block grants to help low-income families get subsidies for child care.
The increased funding, though a “very positive development for families,” won’t meet all the need, Carlson said. Before the bump, estimates were about 10% of eligible low-income families with children who qualified actually received the benefit.
Morrissey notes that in pandemic stimulus funds, the entire child care industry got $3.5 billion in help — the same amount given just to Delta Airlines. Meanwhile, child care centers have been decimated by recent events and it’s predicted as many as 40% of child care slots could be lost, she said.
States like Utah are already bucking the law of supply and demand: Demand is up, but the number of centers is going down.
The big picture
Opinions on many of the policies enacted during or by the Trump administration that affect families are heated, with opposing views — including on Supreme Court appointments, abortion rules, even tax cuts.
“I think the current court will make it harder to sustain legislation/regulations that deliver broad benefits to working-class families regardless of where they live,” Fremstad said, citing the court making Medicaid benefits voluntary for states, as an example.
This also happened to family policies during Trump’s first term:
- Tax credits: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (2017) signed by Trump provided a tax credit to businesses offering paid leave, though the credit is set to expire. The same act raised the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000, but limits the number of children a family can claim. “They put a cap on the number of kids that you can get that credit for, so if you have a lot of kids, you might actually in the long run be paying more in taxes because of it,” Carlson said.
“The whole point of child tax credits and tax deductions is to put money in the hands of families so they they can use it — as opposed to what some people would say is the Democratic position of paying more taxes for government-run programs,” he said.
- Senior entitlements: Campaigning in 2016, Trump said he would save Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security without cuts. This month he said he’d like to cut payroll taxes during the pandemic and maybe permanently. As Forbes explains, “Employers and employees split the 12.4% payroll tax on the first $137,700 of 2020 earnings and also split the 2.9% Medicare tax on all earnings. The self-employed pay the entire tax.”
That could amount to permanent cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which are funded through the payroll tax. Even without cuts, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the Medicare trust fund will face cuts in what it can pay out in 2025 and Social Security in 2031.
- Tax cut. The 2017 tax bill had modest tax benefits for lots of low- and middle-income families with kids, but Poynter Institute’s Politifact concluded long-term benefits tilted heavily to help corporations and wealthy families.
“Infrastructure spending Trump promised but never delivered would have helped the working class much more over the long term,” Fremstad said.
Bradley Hardy, a nonresident senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and chair of public administration and policy at American University, said governments can solve infrastructure problems that hurt the poor and hamper the middle class. For example, investing in schools depends on collecting property taxes, so improving infrastructure boosts the value of properties within a school district, which gives those schools more funding to improve education.
The tax cut didn’t benefit the lowest-income families, including about 15 million children whose parents earn low wages. Politifact estimates in each income range below $75,000 income, folks will see tax increases by 2027, while those above that income threshold won’t. “Some of the individual tax cuts phase out after 2025, due to congressional rules. By allowing some tax cuts to expire, the Republicans needed only 50 votes instead of 60 votes to change tax law,” Politifact explained. “In this case, tax changes that benefit lower-income people expire, while measures that largely affect higher incomes do not.”
- Immigration: Few issues have been as contentious in their impact on families as immigration policy under Trump.
Fremstad said policy that separates immigrant parents and children is hard on families. Keeping kids in some form of custody and deporting parents leaves some conservatives deeply conflicted, while others say imposing such harsh measures discourages unwanted immigration.
Separating immigrant children from parents has been “explicitly harmful to families,” Hanks said.
Trump has tried to curtail the program that stops deportation of those brought to the United States when they were children by parents without legal status, noting Congress needs to act to protect them. His administration is not taking new applications and requires existing participants to renew every year, instead of every two years.
- Abortion: The president reinstated, then expanded the Mexico City Policy, which Kaiser Family Foundation said required foreign NGOs to certify they won’t use funds “from any source” including non-U.S. funds for performing or promoting abortion as family planning, as a condition for obtaining U.S. family planning and health assistance. The policy is named for the city where President Ronald Reagan introduced it in 1984.
- Health care: Another policy battleground is health care, where the president has tried to end the Affordable Care Act. He campaigned with a pledge to undo it, promising different but better medical coverage. Some aspects have been overturned, such as the individual mandate to carry insurance, but no alternative proposal has been offered.
If the act falls, people could lose protections on preexisting conditions and see lifetime caps reinstated, Coontz said.
The president has said he supports protecting health care for people with preexisting conditions, but no alternative to the Affordable Care Act has been offered to do that.
Efforts to overturn the ACA have divided opinion among both policymakers and the public. While some hailed the decision that got rid of the individual mandate to buy insurance, others say millions could lose health care coverage they desperately need.
- Early childhood programs have also seen increased funding, including a significant jump for Head Start and smaller increases in preschool development and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act special education.
Clarification: An earlier version quoted Angela Hanks as saying the administration did several things that were “super helpful to struggling families,” early in the pandemic. It should have said Congress and the administration.