Jan 13 2015
Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here with all of you this morning. Thank you to Mike Needham and everyone at Heritage Action for hosting this important event, and thanks to all of you for coming to participate.
I’m always delighted to have the opportunity to visit The Heritage Foundation. I know we have several new, very promising, conservative Senators who were sworn in last week, but I have to admit that I still miss my old friend, Jim DeMint.
But in truth, I’m glad Jim didn’t take my advice. He’s done a fantastic job at the helm of Heritage over the past couple of years, and this policy summit is a testament to the leadership and vision he has brought to this foundation.
After the historic victory the Republican Party won in November and the great enthusiasm that followed in its wake, this summit is exactly what conservatives need: a time to refocus our minds on the serious challenges facing our country and to share, discuss, and debate our ideas on how we can begin to solve them.
There are many pressing issues that deserve our attention and require action – so many in fact that it can sometimes be difficult to keep them straight.
But as I see it there is one issue – one challenge facing the American people today – that rises above the rest in its complexity, its magnitude, and the reach of its consequences. Directly or indirectly it affects nearly every other public issue you can think of, and should therefore be placed squarely at the center of our reform agenda.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, that issue is the family – its increasing importance and its declining stability – and I believe it may be the single defining challenge of our time.
The family is the first and most important institution of our society – and the foundation of American exceptionalism.
Regardless of what you think the ideal family structure is – or whether you think there is an ideal family structure – our family is where we learn the first and deepest lessons that inform our behavior and shape our personalities as adults.
As one author put it, the family is “the nursery of the next generation.”
More than just the provider of material protections, the family is the shaper of human character.
It is everyone’s primary source of human and social capital: skills and habits like empathy, self-control, and trust that facilitate our pursuit of happiness.
By teaching us what it means to live with duties and obligations toward others, the family prepares us for citizenship and teaches us how to live as members of a community.
The family has always been the linchpin of American life, but today more than ever the health of the family is indivisible from the destiny of our nation.
This is the result of two trends.
First, profound economic and cultural changes over the past several decades have dramatically altered the structure and patterns of family life in America.
Economic shifts starting in the 1970s transformed the labor market – requiring new skills to get a good job paying a decent wage.
As jobs in manufacturing industries dwindled and the service sector rose to replace them, the economic value of the family – and the social and human capital that it provides – has dramatically increased.
Likewise, extraordinary advances in technology transformed the American workplace, rerouting the pathway to economic security through college, or an apprenticeship, or a job-training program.
Suddenly it wasn’t just recent high school graduates who needed access to some kind of post-secondary education – it was also working moms and dads, trying to acquire the skills they needed to compete for good jobs in the new economy.
Meanwhile, following the cultural shifts of the 1960s there emerged a new pattern of family formation.
Throughout our history the shape and character of families in America had continually shifted and changed, mirroring the twists and turns of American life.
But there was one feature of family life that had remained constant: most young adults formed their families following the same sequence. First came love, then came marriage... and you know the rest.
Today, however, marriage is often the last step that parents take when forming a family – and it’s increasingly a step that is being forgone altogether.
Alongside these changes there was a second trend – or you might say “non-trend” – occurring at the same time.
As American families approached the new economic challenges with their characteristic boldness and optimism, Washington responded with its characteristic lethargy and dysfunction.
While America and the world changed around them, lawmakers in Washington – from both parties – clung to old policies like security blankets.
For all politicians’ good intentions, this has not been a victimless offense.
Today, too few families are forming – with or without children – and too few families are remaining intact.
While marriage rates fall and divorce and cohabitation rates remain high, the number of children raised by a single parent has nearly quadrupled in the past 50 years.
And far too many of those families that do form and do remain intact find themselves squeezed at every turn by an out-of-touch federal government that often seems blind to their struggles.
As wages flattened for lower- and middle-income workers, goods like health care and education saw rapid, government-driven inflation.
As the economy put a premium on knowledge and skills, our outmoded higher education policies only made it harder and more expensive for students, young and old, to get the education the new economy demanded.
As the climb from poverty to the middle class grew ever steeper for fragmented families, welfare policies actually came to penalize low-income Americans for getting jobs, getting married, or getting raises.
And as social science continually reconfirms our deepest intuitions about the primacy of family life, Washington has singled out married couples and parents for unfair burdens in the tax code.
We have transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.
And we have a dysfunctional criminal justice system that keeps reformed, nonviolent offenders languishing behind bars while their sons are stuck seeking father figures in the streets.
I could go on and on – and I know the scholars in this room could do so too.
But the point is that these are not stresses put on the family by the free market, or globalization, or income inequality, or even by corrosive trends in popular culture.
No. They are the product of sclerotic government policies that are imposed on the American people by politicians who respond to change by doubling down on status quo policies we already know don’t work.
This is not how a government of, by, and for the people is supposed to conduct itself. Our economy and society are constantly changing. The government’s job isn’t to micromanage or resist those changes, but to remove any barriers facing the American people as they adapt to them.
As Lincoln wisely counseled, the “leading object” of government should be to “lift artificial weights” from all shoulders and “clear the paths of laudable pursuit” for all – especially for the working moms and dads the status quo is leaving behind.
Study after study shows us that a strong family is not just one of the major institutions through which people pursue happiness... it is the one upon which all the others depend.
Economists from Harvard and Cal-Berkeley recently published a report finding that growing up with two married parents is not just one factor among many affecting a child’s economic future – it is the strongest and most reliable predictor of upward mobility.
More than the racial or economic composition of the neighborhood, more than school quality, and more than income inequality, family structure is the most powerful indicator of a child’s ability to climb the income ladder as an adult.
And what’s true for the children of married parents applies to their friends and neighbors too.
The greatest contribution of the study is that it shows that low-income kids are more likely to succeed – regardless of whether their parents were married or not – so long as they grew up in a community with lots of two-parent families.
In other words, strong families make strong communities.
My home state of Utah is a testament to how the family connects us to, and prepares us to succeed in, the networks of opportunity around us.
Across the state we have a growing, prosperous economy, with some of the highest rates of upward mobility in the country.
We have smart, efficient government, operating alongside an active and faithful civil society.
And we have what may be the most successful private welfare system in the world.
But none of this would be possible without strong families – not coincidentally, Utah also has the highest percentage of married-parent households in the country.
But we don’t really need social-science data to tell us that strong families bring a stabilizing, supportive force to their communities. We’ve known it – and see it – all our lives.
This is not to say that the only way to lead a happy, fulfilling life is to grow up with your married mom and dad. Nor is it to say that single parents are anything but full-hearted heroes who deserve anything less than the admiration, support, and respect of a government that has forgotten them for too long.
There is always going to be a diversity of family types and structures in America. And policymakers should not try to artificially recreate the culture of the 1950s any more than the economy of the 1950s.
We must meet America where she is.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t promote the arrangement that is best for children – and adults, and America’s very future.
For the family is much more than a “socializing unit” – it’s an incubator of human flourishing... of personal and economic success.
The data is clear: The future of our society ultimately depends on the honest, noble parents across the country trying to make ends meet in a society, economy, and political system increasingly rigged by Washington against them and their children.
Washington has left those families behind for far too long.
It is time for conservatives to remember those forgotten families. In word and deed, in our hearts and in our agenda.
If the conservative movement – and the new majority in the 114th Congress – truly want to be pro-growth and pro-opportunity, our agenda must first and foremost be pro-family.
In every sense of the word. And not just on some issues, but all of them.
Everything we do in Congress ought to be informed by the struggles and opportunities, the challenges and aspirations of America’s working families.
Take, for instance, our higher education policy.
Our current system empowers colleges and universities to relentlessly raise tuition costs. It stifles the development of bachelor’s degree alternatives. And it saddles parents and students – and parents who are students – with excessive debt.
Right on cue, President Obama is calling for even more taxpayer investment in this failing system. This is ever the position of the Left: keep the status quo, no matter how broken, exactly the same... just spend more money on it.
But why should Americans settle for tinkering around the edges or spending more money on a fundamentally broken system? They deserve real reform that fixes the underlying system and makes higher education more available and affordable.
Non-traditional students who have been locked out of the current system – like working parents – deserve to be able to use federal student loans and grants to acquire the skills they need, at a price that’s right, and on a schedule that works for them.
Once we start looking at our nation’s challenges through the lens of the family, solutions naturally start coming into focus.
For example, we know that breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty depends on breaking the intergenerational cycle of fatherlessness. Here, family structure affects economic outcomes.
But we also know that the causal arrow goes in the other direction, too.
Many of the men retreating from marriage today are not doing so confidently. They’re not defiantly rejecting tradition and embracing postmodern values.
No. For many, their retreat from marriage is a constrained, insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity.
So our pro-family, anti-poverty agenda must account for both sides of the coin. In addition to eliminating policy obstacles to family formation, we must build an economy that works for America’s forgotten moms and dads, so that they are free to embrace – rather than retreat from – marriage.
We need to repair our broken criminal justice system, so that reformed offenders can return to the families and neighborhoods that need them.
We must open up our transportation system, so that we’re investing in the infrastructure projects that benefit working parents – connecting where they want to live to where they need to work – rather than advancing the agenda of special interests and bureaucrats.
And we must restore competitiveness and dynamism to the top of our economy, by reining in a federal regulatory regime that stifles innovative, job-creating start-ups while coddling well-connected, corporate incumbents.
Conservatives often get criticized for putting too much emphasis on the family. But at this point, with a mountain of social science evidence on our side, there’s no denying that the critics have it backwards: the real problem is that we don’t think about family enough, or in the right way.
You see, it matters a great deal how we think about the family.
Too often conservatives talk about the family in disjointed terms, as if it had two separate and distinct meanings. Because we understand its profound effect on character formation, most conservatives instinctively appreciate and celebrate the family as a moral institution.
But rarely do we even acknowledge, much less embrace, the family as an economic institution. Sure, we talk a lot about “working families,” but this doesn’t do justice to the contributions America’s families make to our economy.
Many moms and dads are “workers,” yes. But we all know they’re more than that.
So the challenge for conservatives – and for progressives – is to embrace a new definition of the family that fuses and transcends these two meanings.
We need to acknowledge that the family is both a moral institution with economic implications and an economic institution with moral implications.
We can no longer afford to pretend as if the family were strictly a “moral” issue, while insisting that poverty, unemployment, and unequal opportunity are strictly “economic” issues. Ignoring the economic consequences of family structure isn’t the polite, “non-judgmental” thing to do – it contradicts reality and it distorts our public policy debates.
And ignoring the way economic conditions influence families – how they are formed and whether they remain intact – leaves us blind to the opportunities policymakers have to strengthen the family by strengthening its economic foundations.
Family breakdown – especially within America’s most vulnerable communities – is not for us to judge, but to try, in every way we can, to help repair.
This work ahead of us must be done with sensitivity and compassion – and, we pray, with liberals. But it must be done.
The American family is always changing, but our nation’s dependence on the family never will. They are what make us good and make us great.
The heart of American exceptionalism is not bankers in a boardroom or politicians at a podium, but parents helping their kids with homework after dinner at the kitchen table. In the battle of ideas, it’s easy to forget what we’re really fighting for – and who.
Washington too often forgets the family. We forget that economic growth and a strong national defense are not ends in themselves, but the means to the happiness of the people.
The real work of America is not the projection of power or the accumulation of wealth, but the humble heroism of story time, soccer games, and visits to grandma’s.
We must remember that the most audacious entrepreneurs in America are not the high-tech CEOs in Silicon Valley... they’re a young couple at an altar, saying “I do.”
And the most important investments in our nation’s future are not issued on Wall Street... but are sleeping in their mothers’ arms at the maternity unit of their local hospital.
Building a new conservative agenda of reform around these moms and dads and kids – remembering America’s forgotten families – is the path to restoring the greatness of our nation.
Thank you and God bless.