Social Democracy and Families

Social Democracy and Families

“If we were to stand silently by and not have the courage to speak out against these proposals, then we could never look anyone in the eye again and say we support alternatives to abortion.”

Wanda Franz, a staunch anti-abortion activist and then-president of the National Right to Life Committee, said this in reference to the suite of welfare cuts backed by Newt Gingrich and House Republicans. In the U.S., self-avowed “pro-family” conservatives are often the target of attacks which claim they’re hypocrites for their vociferous opposition to the welfare state. In European nations, however, there is a large contingent of socially conservative parties and politicians who contend to voters that generous government aid is in fact a crucial element of promoting the family structure.

Franz represented a significant share of the anti-abortion right who felt that the drastic conservative reforms—including denying federal assistance to unmarried mothers under the age of 18, cutting aid to low-income mothers who become pregnant, and the forced seizure of the children of unwed teenage mothers—would inevitably lead to an uptick in pregnancy terminations. 

As the months passed, conservative opposition to welfare reform slid out of the political periphery. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act received the support of nearly every Republican Member of Congress and a sizable chunk of Congressional Democrats before being signed by President Bill Clinton in August. Though the signed law was bereft of the most controversial elements of antecedent proposals, it still severely curbed assistance to low-income parents.

Pro-life welfare statists may have lost that particular fight. But a quarter-century later, the empirical record has vindicated their larger point: social spending which reduces the financial burden of child-rearing is an integral ingredient for reducing abortions. One study found that the implementation of Spain’s universal child allowance lead to a decline in abortions and an increase in fertility among women. Lyman Stone, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies, has found that child allowances cut the abortion rate after controlling for a plethora of different factors. 

Redistributism’s ties to natalism spans far further back than the 1990s fights over welfare reform. For example, the advent of post-war social democracy across the spread of Western Europe wasn’t just a ploy to fight off resurgent fascism and insurgent communism. It also served the purpose of guaranteeing families a lifeline in an industrial economy. Some of the pro-family social safety net policies common in this area include robust child allowances, paid family leave, and universal child care. These allow for larger families than many parents could afford by relying solely on their market incomes.

The tradition of center-right European Christian democracy that also arose on the continent shared similar concerns about the clashing between familialism and free market classical liberalism. In the Quadragesimo anno, a Catholic encyclical issued around eight years before the beginning of the second World War, the Pope tried reconciling this tension. The Catholic Church maintains its respect for private property and capitalism, but emphasizes the important role that the owner class has in ensuring their workers—at the time, almost exclusively men—can support their families.

In the first place, the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family. That the rest of the family should also contribute to the common support, according to the capacity of each, is certainly right, as can be observed especially in the families of farmers, but also in the families of many craftsmen and small shopkeepers. But to abuse the years of childhood and the limited strength of women is grossly wrong. Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.

The Catholic Church sustained its support for capitalism and gender roles, but this was the very basis for their support for more egalitarian economic structures. The state’s preservation of the traditional social order necessitated an economic system that allowed for this traditional social order.

Another central tenet of familialism—the ability of parents to spend time with their children, especially in their formative years—is also undermined by free market liberalism. A survey done by the conservative think tank American Compass found that a familial situation in which one parent earns an income and the other cares for the children is the overwhelming favorite among low-income and middle-income Americans. Among upper-income Americans, that arrangement is slightly edged out by one in which both parents work. Though other countries provide extremely generous cash support for families and paid family leave, America’s historical lack of a social democratic movement means that working families who long for traditional family structures are left out in the rain.

For instance, America is the only OECD nation in which the national government doesn’t guarantee paid family leave for new parents. This happens to fall on the lowest-income workers the most: 74% of workers making less than $20,000 get no pay from their employer while on leave, while that number is only 24% for those making between $50,000 and $75,000. In other words, the Americans that most desire a traditional family structure are the ones least able to afford it.

The most prevalent theory among left-of-center academics for America’s lack of a social safety net is the enduring history of racial polarization. The theory claims that as a result of the brutality of chattel slavery, Black Americans were consistently poorer than White Americans. This meant that redistribution necessarily disproportionately benefited African Americans, a political barrier for redistribution advocates in a country with a then significant population of racist whites. Even though the share of the electorate that was racist dwindled, these academics argue, racial heterogeneity remained an obstacle for redistribution. Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaesar and Bruce Sacerdote detailed this argument in great length in their 2001 write-up about why America’s welfare state is so much stingier than Europe’s:

Racial discord plays a critical role in determining beliefs about the poor. Since racial minorities are highly overrepresented among the poorest Americans, any income-based redistribution measures will redistribute disproportionately to these minorities. Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies. Across countries, racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution. Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.

Though this theory does hold some water, it’s difficult to believe it is the sole cause of our relative economic libertarianism. This is in part because Americans are by-and-large less racially prejudiced than people of other developed countries. Though French people are more than four times as likely to say they don’t want to live next to people of “another race,” for example, their welfare state is expansive enough to haunt the nightmares of many Anglosphere conservatives. As of 2019, France spends more than 4.5 times as much on government family benefits as a share of GDP as the U.S.. 

Another explanation is that the religious conservatives who had backed several aspects of the European welfare state during the 20th century were consistently on the opposite side in the US. Following the growing threat of Soviet communism infecting Europe and Asia, free market libertarians—who shared religious conservatives’ contempt and existential fear of the USSR—joined them in the Republican Party. This phenomenon, dubbed “fusionism” by political historians, meant that social conservatives were anti-government intervention in the economy. Period.

Though fusionism was a prudent political maneuver—Republicans won three consecutive presidential landslides in the three elections preceding the Soviet Union’s collapse—its tensions make it less than stable, to say the least. Though no Congressional Republicans supported President Biden’s child allowance, the past few decades have made it clear that free market-ism is a bad deal for cultural conservatives.

In the United States, the decades-long political union between anti-libertine cultural conservatives and Goldwater-style right-libertarians has been the backbone of the GOP. But across the Atlantic, the relationship between free marketeers and traditionalist conservatives is often ambivalent at best and openly confrontational at worst. Any push for an economy that prioritizes the promotion of strong families—and the subsequent reductions in abortion—must grapple with the fact that a quasi-religious devotion to free markets is inimical to these goals.

Featured image is Poster for the popular vote of 25th November 1945, from the Swiss National Library