Helping Vulnerable Moms and Families: How Do We Get to Bipartisan Support?

Lawmakers and policy experts discuss the obstacles and progress on family-focused policies.

A young family spends a moment together at home.
A young family spends a moment together at home. (photo: Ground Picture / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Assisting new moms and young families seems like an area that should be a central, bipartisan focus of Congress in this polarized post-Roe era. Policies like paid parental leave, expanding the child tax credit, and providing additional resources to new moms have been an increased topic of discussion among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

But actually building this bipartisan coalition is proving challenging.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops placed a renewed emphasis on family-focused policy shortly after Roe was overturned, calling on Congress to “place a high priority on policies that advance the health, safety, and flourishing of women, children, and families.” To this end, they shared over a dozen policy recommendations, including expansion of the child tax credit and enacting paid family leave.

There has been little progress on these issues in the 118th Congress, with obstacles like the significant question of how to fund such measures, as Democrats and Republicans hold widely different views on that issue.

Robert Vega, director of public policy at the USCCB’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that policies like making the child tax credit more robust and pursuing federal paid family leave have “a decent range of bipartisan support.”

“It’s just getting details across the finish line that are the obstacle,” he said. “How to pay for it becomes the big dispute among the elected officials.”

Expanding the Child Tax Credit

After the temporary, pandemic-era expanded child tax credit took effect in 2021 as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, eligible families received monthly payments of up to $300 per child, and child poverty hit a historic low of 5.2%.

New census data shows that since the expansion expired, child poverty has risen to 12.4%. Republicans, along with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., opposed Democrats’ attempts to make the expansion permanent, citing concerns about its cost, given the rising national debt and debates over the inclusion of work requirements, as the expansion was available to families with little to no taxable income.

There have been GOP efforts to increase the child tax credit while addressing concerns about funding and work requirements.

The recently reintroduced Providing for Life Act from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., would increase the tax credit from its current $2,000 to “up to $3,500 for under the age of 18 and $4,500 per child under the age of 6” for working parents and would retroactively cover unborn children. His New Parents Act is also a part of this framework and would allow new parents to “pull forward up to three months of their Social Security benefits to finance paid parental leave.”

Rubio said in a statement to the Register that “in a post-Roe America, it is more important than ever that we support families and children. That’s why I’m fighting for pro-family policies like the Providing for Life Act, which includes an expanded Child Tax Credit. This credit would provide needed relief to working families and make a real difference in the lives of children.”

In response to a query about Manchin’s stance on family policies and expanding the child tax credit, a Manchin representative did not address the tax-credit issue directly but told the Register that Manchin “continues to support policies that support hardworking families and give every child a chance to achieve the American dream,” including “$8.7 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) in the markup of the Senate FY 2024 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education funding bill, a $700 million increase from the previous year’s appropriation.”

The CCDBG is the primary source of federal funding for childcare for low-income families.

The statement also referenced Manchin securing more than “$76 million for Head Start programs across West Virginia in 2023” that provide free learning and development services for children from low-income families.

Patrick Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Life and Family Initiative, told the Register that expanding the child tax credit is “the most straightforward way of getting resources to parents” because it’s “more money in their pocket.”

Brown praised the Family Security Act proposal from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for “collapsing some of the different child-related benefits in the tax code into one stable payment.” The plan reforms existing programs, taking “different sources of money that aren’t always necessarily the most efficient way” to help families and collapsing them into one $350-a-month payment for each young child and $250-a-month payment for each schoolaged child for couples earning $10,000 a year or more.

Brown said Rubio and Romney are “at the tip of the spear” on these pro-family policies. “I always wish they could go further, but they’ve come a long way.”

While acknowledging the problem — emphasized especially by the GOP — of funding pro-family policies in a way that’s “fiscally sustainable,” he said that, “given the plight of low birth rates, high rates of stress on young parents, and declining marriage rates,” there is urgency in making family life more affordable.

“Parents bear the cost individually,” Brown said, “but society benefits from having more people, more kids, and so there’s an economic rationale for wanting to expand spending.”

Paid Parental Leave

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told the Register that he sees bipartisan interest in family-focused policies and referenced a 2019 attempt he made with Sinema to pass “paid parental leave that would allow parents who were either bringing a new baby home from the hospital or adopting to get a pull forward of a total of $5,000 from future child tax credits.”

“If you have a child, you can get a $2,000 a year credit towards helping to pay for that child’s upkeep,” he explained. “We allowed 10 years of that to be $500 a year for 10 years to be pulled forward to give a lump sum at the time of the child’s birth and coming home or the adoption. The rationale is that the first year is the most expensive and that the parent would have the choice of using the money either for childcare or for income replacement, should the mother decide to stay home with the child or the father stay home.”

He said that while they were unable to pass that proposal, he’s working with his Senate colleagues to put together a fuller package and is optimistic that, “sooner or later, something like this will become law.”

“The thing I liked about the plan we have with Kyrsten Sinema is that we had a way to pay for it,” he said. “We’ll be looking for other solutions, which we can find common ground on how to pay for, but which don’t effectively raise taxes on working individuals and folks who can’t afford those taxes.”

Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., is a Catholic mom and member of the House Bipartisan Working Group on Paid Family Leave that has been exploring ways to craft a federal paid family leave policy for the past eight months. “We’re one of seven countries in the world, developed countries, that do not have some sort of national or structured paid-family-leave initiative,” she told the Register.

The issue is personal for Bice, who says that, as a mother of two, she recognizes “the importance of being able to stay home with your children, especially in those first few weeks and months.”

Bice had a short-term disability policy with the company she was working for when she had her daughters, but her Democratic colleague on the working group, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., was serving in the military when she was expecting her first daughter, and “at the time there was no leave policy for military.”

Bice said it was “incredibly important” to have these personal perspectives in the working group as they explore ways “to ensure that other mothers have the opportunity to stay home with their children.” She added that fathers should also have “just as much ability to stay home with this new child.”

She referenced the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires covered employers to provide employees with job-protected, unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons, saying there could be discussions “looking at structuring this new plan using some of the parameters that are already in place through FMLA.”

“We passed FMLA 30 years ago under the idea that it would move to providing some sort of paid-family-leave initiative down the road,” she said, “and here we are, 30 years later, and we still don’t have that.” In her view, “Republicans are the party of family,” and “we want to make sure that we’re showing that; it can’t just be based on trying to push forward pro-life initiatives. It has to be family initiatives as well.”

Bice saw the question of how to fund any paid-family-leave effort as “the biggest obstacle to overcome,” considering the $33-trillion national debt, with $2 trillion added to the deficit this year.

In addition to the question of funding, Bice said that “there are other issues like states that have already put some sort of paid-family-leave initiative in place.” She said they’ve heard from a lot of organizations that “want to see a federal plan because they don’t want this to be a patchwork of different policies across the country” and says that “making sure that we’re not overstepping what states have already put in place is going to be a challenge.”

Still, Bice believes policy to strengthen families is important, pointing out that “if you look at the outcomes of children that come from single-parent households versus those that come from a two-parent nuclear family, the education outcomes are drastically improved on the latter.”

Abortion’s Obstacle

One obstacle to bipartisanship on policies to help new moms is the intrusion of abortion politics into these efforts. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which Cassidy backed as the lead Republican cosponsor, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees. The measure, which was first introduced by Democrats in 2012 and gained bipartisan backing by 2015, passed Congress in December, with broad bipartisan support, and was signed into law, but is now caught up in a debate over abortion.

In August, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued proposed regulations that defined abortion as one of the “related medical conditions” in the act, requiring employers to accommodate women for limitations that arise from “having or choosing not to have an abortion.”

In a statement denouncing the EEOC’s proposed regulations, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, noted the U.S. bishops had supported the measure because “it enhanced the protection of pregnant mothers and their preborn children, which is something that we have encouraged Congress to prioritize.”

“The Act is pro-worker, pro-family, and pro-life,” Bishop Burbidge said. “It is a total distortion to use this law as a means for advancing abortion and the complete opposite of needed assistance for pregnant mothers.”

Cassidy told the Register that “the Biden administration went rogue” in the EEOC’s interpretation of the bill to include abortion coverage. He said that the way the legislation was drafted made it clear for both religious and nonreligious employers that “if they feel as if any accommodation that they would be asked for is not reasonable, they don’t have to grant it.”

Cassidy noted that Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who was the primary sponsor of the measure in the Senate starting in 2012, specifically commented during the Senate floor debate in December that, under the legislation, the EEOC “could not issue any regulation that requires abortion leave, nor does the act permit the EEOC to require employers to provide abortion leave in violation of state law.”

Focus on the Family

While debates and discussions on family policy continue in Congress, Brown said policy efforts should start “with having the family as the primary lens through which you see policymaking.” He noted the centrality of the family in the Church’s vision of society and in the words of St. John Paul II, who declared in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.”

The USCCB’s Vega similarly emphasized the need for Catholics to be intentional about building up “the culture of life in a societal way,” in addition to pursuing “public policies that support families, support motherhood, and support children in health care and in economics.”