I’m tired of hearing politicians using “family values” as shorthand for a narrow and often misguided agenda. It is time to broaden and reclaim a truly pro-family agenda to protect and strengthen all families.
Since at least the mid-1990s, the political and Religious Right have often claimed a monopoly on “family values.” Many Democrats have only exacerbated this trend with their reticence to frame many of their policies as pro-family. As a result, whenever we hear a politician talking about “family values” or “pro-family policies,” it is so often shorthand for policies that oppose legal abortion or threaten LGBTQ+ rights — policies that neither correspond to the nuanced views most Americans (including Christians) have on abortion nor my strong belief that that our LGBTQ+ siblings are beloved of God and deserve the same rights as everyone else.
Of course, if you step outside of the world of politics, it’s obvious that people across a broad spectrum of political and faith backgrounds view the welfare of their family — whether biological, blended, or chosen — as the center of their lives. In other words, our narrow understanding of “pro-family policies” is a lost opportunity to forge common political ground. Protecting families should be a nonpartisan issue with bipartisan support, not another casualty of extreme partisanship.
So, I want to set the record straight and outline what I think a truly faith-inspired, pro-family agenda should look like. In short, true family values in politics should mean any program or policy that protects human dignity, helps families thrive, and promotes space for kids to grow. As Christians, we stand for this kind of “family values” not so that we can enforce our own theological beliefs on others, but rather to stay faithful to scripture’s commands to generously provide for our neighbors’ flourishing and protect the most vulnerable, regardless of whether they share our beliefs (Matthew 22:36-40).
My hope is that we can bring these issues to the forefront of our public debate with greater vigilance and clarity, particularly as so many politicians seek to cut or even eliminate these very programs. This threat is heightened due to the imminent danger of a reckless government shutdown, instigated by members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, which would profoundly harm families and communities.
1. Pro-family policies provide vital support to families experiencing poverty, lift families out of poverty, and keep families out of poverty. Research shows that children thrive when their parents have the resources necessary to help all family members succeed. Supporting parents is especially critical during the first three years of their child’s life, when developmental changes are occurring that may impact the child into adulthood. For example, adverse childhood experiences such as poverty can impact the health, well-being, and safety of a small child, and are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use disorders into adulthood. That means children living in poverty and the underlying associated stress are more likely to experience negative long-term impacts that prevent them from realizing their full potential in adulthood.
Earlier this month, the Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty in the U.S., revealing that poverty jumped from 7.8 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022, a 60 percent increase. Even more heartbreaking: Child poverty more than doubled.
These are sobering, but not surprising numbers: During the height of the pandemic, the stimulus payments of President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden’s administrations — and in particular the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) in Biden’s American Rescue Plan — brought poverty down sharply in 2021. The expanded CTC was a true game-changer, lifting nearly 3 million children out of poverty with monthly payments to many families of $250-300 per child per month for the six months the policy was in effect. By enacting these measures to support families and children experiencing poverty, policymakers made a bold choice. In 2022, the expanded CTC ended — and increased rates of child poverty followed. Last August, a renewed CTC and other pro-family, anti-poverty programs were excluded from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, due primarily to Republican opposition.
2. Pro-family policies support parents and enable them to better care for their children. Many policies that were included in Biden’s Build Back Better agenda last year but failed to pass the Senate were profoundly pro-family in nature, though they were rarely framed or communicated as such. For instance, addressing the often exorbitant cost of child care and making quality care affordable and accessible to all parents ensures that children have the care and attention they need while a parent is working. Incentivizing states to implement universal pre-K programs would also help with child care costs and start children from all income backgrounds on a better path to educational success. Guaranteeing parents 12 weeks of universal family and medical leave (as early versions of Build Back Better would have done) enables parents to care for and bond with their baby. Tragically, the United States falls far behind almost all of the industrial world in ensuring these “pro-family” commitments. Opponents of expanding these programs often argue they are too costly and burdensome; however, these are worthwhile investments that advance the common good, especially when considering that economic pressures of parenting put great strain on familial relationships.
3. Pro-family policies ensure the health and well-being of mothers, babies, and young children. If we want to talk about policies that are truly pro-family, the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act is an essential place to start. As Sojourners political director Lauren W. Reliford wrote, this package of legislation would “adopt a comprehensive, evidence-based approach” to “course correct the current flaws in our maternal, newborn, and child health care system.” Mothers in the United States have higher rates of maternal mortality than any other high-wealth nation. In the U.S., Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are 2 to 3 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. These disparities are often blamed on racist tropes about Black poverty and family life; however, a Black mother with a college education is still at 60 percent greater risk for a maternal death than a white or Hispanic woman with less than a high school education. The Black maternal health crisis is exposing cracks in our maternal and newborn care system. Addressing these fundamental issues will create a baseline system of care that benefits all women and children in the U.S. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provide a lifeline to families in preventing both hunger and malnutrition. The programs should be expanded, not undermined with cuts or unnecessary additional work requirements.
4. Pro-family policies keep migrant families together. Families that have been forced to escape extreme poverty, violence, and repression in their countries and are exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the U.S. are no less worthy of protection than families of U.S. citizens. Lawmakers have failed again and again to deliver the comprehensive immigration reform that our country so badly needs. Yet as Christians, we are called to look beyond what seems politically possible and envision new realities that transcend the brokenness of what is. Separating migrant parents from their children is both highly immoral and anti-family. An immigration system that treats migrant families with the same dignity that everyone wants for their own family is possible, and we must never stop fighting for it.
5. Pro-family policies protect and steward God’s creation for our children and future generations. Climate change is the defining crisis of our time, one that impacts every other pro-family issue we care about. We need to continue pushing for the successful implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, which made the largest ever investment by Congress in fighting climate change. We also need to champion policies that will take us beyond the IRA and allow us to reach the carbon reduction targets science tells us are not only necessary but imperative.
Even this more comprehensive list of pro-family commitments is incomplete. Increasing access to affordable housing and ending family homelessness, combatting the epidemic of gun violence, addressing the crisis of suicide and mental health, and so much more are also deeply pro-family. In times of budget battles and hard policy choices, we desperately need a much more expansive pro-family agenda. We also need a healthier and more robust dialogue around the best policies and solutions to bring these pro-family goals to fruition. Otherwise, our political imagination and moral courage will continue to be stunted and we will remain captive to an overly narrow and broken paradigm. Let us work together to redefine and galvanize support for a truly pro-family agenda so that all families can be protected and thrive.