But there are two reasons for conservatives who supported the Gingrich-era reforms to give Romney’s plan a hearing. First, some of his plan’s incentives clearly cut in favor of work and marriage, not against. One big reason the old welfare system discouraged work was that its benefits could disappear immediately if a beneficiary found a job, because every dollar earned meant a dollar less in welfare. But the Romney subsidy phases out only at high incomes, so there’s no disincentive for a low-income parent to take a job. Meanwhile, the plan also tweaks the earned-income tax credit to make it more pro-marriage and pro-work, potentially balancing out any disincentives created by the child benefit.
Lifting up from the policy detail, though, the bigger reason for conservatives to favor the Romney’s plan’s generosity is that we live in a very different world from 1996. Then, America had an overall birthrate that was consistently around replacement level, and a stubbornly high teenage birthrate in communities struggling with chronic poverty. It was reasonable, in that context, for welfare reform to focus on breaking a cycle in which teen pregnancy threatened to lead to lasting unemployment and subsidized dependency.
Today, the situation is different. The teen birthrate has plummeted to its lowest level in modern American history, and meanwhile the overall birthrate has plummeted as well, with Covid-19 delivering an extra fertility suppressant. (If the United States had just maintained its 2008 fertility rate, 5.8 million more children would exist today.) Neither political coalition is reckoning yet with the consequences of this fertility collapse, but we will all be living with its consequences — in stagnation, loneliness, alienation — for decades to come.
In this environment, it’s risking some small incentive to have and raise kids in non-ideal circumstances in order to create a more welcoming society for child rearing overall. The conservative goals of supporting work and marriage remain important, but in the balance they have to yield a little to a more fundamental goal — that society should reproduce itself.
For that matter, the more liberal goal of equity should yield as well — which is why the Romney plan would actually be better without the income cap, with a family benefit flowing even unto fecund billionaires.
To a much greater extent than 25 years ago, America simply needs more babies — from the rich and poor and middle-class alike. Public policy alone cannot deliver them, even something as ambitious as the Romney plan. But its reasonable goal isn’t an immediate baby boom, desirable though that might be. It’s to lay the firmest possible policy foundation on which a more fertile, youthful and hopeful society might eventually be built.