Family Values in American Politics: Talking Point or Call to Action?
Updated: Nov 9
As negotiations over the contents of President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure and social spending packages drag on, lawmakers must make crucial decisions about which aspects of the legislation to keep and which to cut. One visible feature of the social spending bill is an expansion of both the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits. These credits respectively reduce the amount of taxes low-income working Americans and Americans with children owe the federal government and have been touted as effective poverty-slashing mechanisms, especially for families. In fact, supporting families has been a major focus of Biden’s agenda since his days on the campaign trail. With families standing to benefit as major stakeholders in the currently contested legislation, it’s worth taking a look back to contextualize the role that family values have played in political rhetoric and policy throughout the nation’s history.
The Rhetoric of Family Values
In the early days of America, families were seen as a source of morality for the country as a whole. John Adams wrote in his 1778 biography that “the foundations of national morality must be laid in private families,” commenting on the responsibility of parents to raise morally and religiously righteous children who would grow up to be morally and religiously righteous citizens. As historian Elaine Tyler May writes in her 2003 essay “‘Family Values’: The Uses and Abuses of American Family History,” “Believing in the rights of the individual, but fearful of tyranny from above as well as anarchy from below, the nation’s founders invested in the institution of the family the responsibility for maintaining social order in the democracy.”
While the role of the family in preserving national morality and social order persisted for over a century, May goes on to argue that the economic and social turmoil brought on by the Great Depression forever altered the relationship between the government and the family. Rather than relying on families to uphold national values, the focus changed to how the government could support families. “With the New Deal, the government offered its first safety net for American families, shifting the burden of responsibility from families to the state,” May writes.
While the postwar period saw the nuclear family reemerge as a beacon of national order and identity, the federal government once again shouldered responsibility for supporting families under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. However, it wasn’t until the social and political turmoil of the 1970s and 80s that “family values” became a popular political talking point. President Ronald Reagan delivered a radio address in 1983 during which he declared that “Families stand at the center of society, so building our future must begin by preserving family values.” He went on to promote reduced taxes, job training, and drug abuse prevention as tools for protecting and uplifting families.
In fact, according to May, much of Reagan’s rhetoric involved placing blame on so-called “bad families” for social ills such as crime and poverty. In Reagan’s view, feminists, absent fathers, and welfare queens—disruptors of the traditional family structure—all posed a threat to national morality and identity.
Since Reagan, politicians have co-opted the rhetoric of family values to suit various ends. In 1992, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan delivered a fiery speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he painted Hillary Clinton as an anti-family crusader, criticizing her for allegedly comparing the institutions of marriage and the family to “slavery and life on an Indian reservation.” Earlier that same year, then-presidential hopeful Bill Clinton challenged George H.W. Bush and colleagues’ verbal commitment to family values while failing to deliver meaningful policies in the realm of education and women’s healthcare. “For all the talk of family values by those who have governed this country for 20 of the last 24 years, we don’t do anything like we should in the rearing and educating of children,” Clinton claimed.
The theme of family values carried over into the 21st century. Mitt Romney made heavy use of his large family in campaign advertisements during the 2012 election season, and Michelle Obama told the crowd at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that “Barack knows what it means when a family struggles.”
Lots of Talk, But What Action?
What purpose does all of this talk of families and family values from both sides of the political aisle serve? According to Laurel Elder and Steven Greene, writing for The Washington Post in 2012, the rhetoric of families is yet another manifestation of the fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about the proper size and role of government in the lives of individuals. The authors write, “Democrats cite families when they advocate for more regulation and stronger government programs, while Republicans hold up the family when calling for lower taxes and less government.”
If both parties have visions for how the government should interact with families, what kinds of policies have they actually enacted? Unlike many European countries, the U.S. has shied away from providing families with direct material support in the form of cash allowances or universal child benefits. Instead, much of the federal government’s public policy regarding families have taken the shape of tax credits.
Established in 1975, the Earned Income Tax Credit allows low-income working families and individuals who make anywhere from approximately $15,000 to approximately $50,000 per year (depending on marital status and number of dependent children) to reduce the amount of taxes they owe the federal government. If the amount of credit that a family is eligible for exceeds the amount of taxes that they owe, the government will refund the difference. In 2019, the average credit claimed amongst those eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit amounted to $2,476.
Similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit (established in 1997) reduces the amount of money that families with children owe the federal government in income taxes. Like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit is adjusted based on marital status and number of dependents and is also refundable. However, unlike the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit benefits a broader demographic of Americans, with couples making up to $150,000 or single parents making up to $112,500 able to claim eligibility.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan stimulus package included temporary increases in the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits to account for the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the American Rescue Plan increased the maximum Child Tax Credit from $3,000 per child for children six years old and above and $3,600 per child for children under six. It also extended coverage of the Child Tax Credit from children under 17 to children under 18, and increased the amount low-wage workers without children could claim under the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Biden is now hoping to extend these provisions through 2025 under the American Families Plan, which is a major component of the now-contested social spending package. The plan, if passed, would also provide universal preschool and two free years of community college, and improve paid family leave. Like other aspects of the social spending package, the American Families Plan has met pushback from many sides, including state financial officials who claim it would afford the federal government unprecedented access to citizens’ financial information, and former Vice President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, who said it would “create a welfare state in which you have dependency from cradle to grave.”
For his part, Biden seems more concerned with providing families with material assistance than simply weaponizing the rhetoric of family values for electoral gain. In July, he described the expansion of the Child Tax Credit as "another giant step toward ending child poverty in America," adding that "this can be life changing for so many families." At the same event, he emphasized the credit as a means of helping parents improve the quality of life for their children. “This can make it possible for a hardworking parent to say to his or her child: 'Honey, we get, you can get your new braces now,” the president stated. “We can get you a tutor to help you in the math class you're having trouble with. We can get you the sports equipment you need to sign up for your first team you're going to play on.'"
Whether or not the American Families Plan, with its extensions of the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits, passes Congress is sure to have major implications for American families of many income levels. The White House claims in their Fact Sheet for the plan that “The expanded Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan benefited nearly 66 million children,” and the Earned Income Tax Credit reached 17 million low-wage workers. From the naming of the American Families Plan to his own political history, it’s clear that Biden is no stranger to the rhetoric and imagery of family values and will try to transform his vision into meaningful legislative action.