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Using Policy to Promote Strong Families

December 07, 2016

With rising income inequality, many have grown dissatisfied with redistributive government programs. But the dialogue around income redistribution has overshadowed another growing disparity: the difference in levels of family stability and parental engagement across socioeconomic classes. Today, many of the extrinsic pressures that shaped family structure in the mid-20th century seem to have waned. In this article, we explore the economic definition of a strong family in the 21st century, its importance for a child’s education and future socioeconomic mobility, and how policymakers can cultivate stronger environments for children at home.

What is a Strong Family?

In the 1950s, popular culture pushed the notion of a nuclear family – one with a married father and mother and dependent children – as a way of promoting “family values.” This term describes the moral values and discipline that can be reinforced by living in a stable home. For example, television programs often associated nuclear families with stability. Decades later, we now live in a society with increasing diversity of family structure type with same-sex marriages and more single-parent homes. In order to reap the benefits of strong families, we must adapt how we define them to the society parents and children live in today.

In these times of growing inequality, an economic objective of parenting should be to improve a child’s prospects of socioeconomic mobility in adulthood. Social scientists define a strong family in the modern U.S. economy as a household that is intact and that has parents that are appropriately involved in the development of their children. With budget crises sweeping school districts across the nation over recent years, many are quick to blame state education spending cuts for poor educational outcomes. Although this public spending matters, many often overlook the outside-of-school inputs for these outcomes.

Many social scientists identify two economic inputs as a means of analyzing impacts on childhood development: family stability and parent involvement. Family stability is measured by the quantity and severity of disruptions, such as abandonment or divorce. Stability is highest when these disruptions are minimal, which can lead to lower levels of anxiety for parents, cultivating a more nurturing environment for children. Involvement means that parents provide their children with the appropriate amount of parental attention and financial support. The attention can lead to better school readiness and extracurricular engagement. More disposable income allows for higher quality childcare and spending for educational attainment.

The State of the American Family

The social norms that promoted the nuclear family structure have largely disappeared. Before the 1970s, a patriarchal division of labor allowed for specialization, where men worked outside the home to earn income for the household and women worked inside the home to nurture children. In addition, a stigma against out-of-wedlock births led to “shotgun marriages” to cover up premarital pregnancies, which often established a two-parent household for children. 

Starting 40 years ago, various cultural revolutions changed the nature of the family institution. For instance, feminist movements transformed the idea of gender roles, empowered women to seek work outside of the home, and decreased the stigma of premarital sex. Despite these changing norms, the family structure from the mid-20th century still exists, but faces new challenges.

<em>Line graphs showing percentage of children born to unmarried mothers and percentage of children living in single vs. two-parent homes. (</em><em>Source: </em><em><a href="http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/09/academic-success-begins-at-home-how-children-can-succeed-in-school" target="_blank">The Heritage Foundation</a></em><em>)</em>Line graphs showing percentage of children born to unmarried mothers and percentage of children living in single vs. two-parent homes. (Source: The Heritage Foundation)

We also see a class split whereby families from lower socioeconomic classes are less able to recreate the family structure romanticized in the 1950s. For example, the number of single-parent homes in the upper-socioeconomic class has only increased by 5% since the 1970s, while families in lower-socioeconomic classes have exhibited an increase in single-parent homes of 40% as of 2011.

Social scientists have not reached a consensus as to why marriage rates have declined among low-income Americans. Conservatives claim that increased aid available for single parents has financially enabled single parenthood. In addition, they argue that lower combined benefits from means-tested welfare programs for married couples disincentivize marriage for recipients. Liberals favor the argument that the shortage of jobs for less educated men has negatively impacted the marriageability of men in this income bracket. Many also believe that the liberalization of abortion and contraceptives has led to rises in premarital sex and the erosion of the “shotgun marriages” – marriages forced or hurried by pregnancy. Although there is no consensus on how much of the decline to attribute to each cause, scientists do agree that this decline in marriage rates has major ramifications for society today. Family instability reduces prospects of socioeconomic mobility for children.

Readiness for K-12 Education

Stronger families, in terms of parental involvement, more effectively prepare children for school, regardless of household income. The impact of a family environment manifests itself before children even reach the age of six. Recent research indicates that school readiness – hereby defined as a measure of basic skills such as literacy and mathematics at the age of four – is linked to an increased emphasis on early childhood nurturance, learning during summer vacation, provision of reading material, and extracurricular activities; these activities imply a high degree of parental involvement.

Family stability also has an impact on school readiness. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists have consistently shown that adverse childhood experiences - such as divorce, abuse, and neglect - are harmful for childhood development. When family stability is low, children perform poorly in school. Conversely, families that minimize adverse childhood experiences and instead foster nurturing environments produce children who are more socially competent and perform better in school environments than their counterparts.

<em>Trends in the percent of children with school readiness skills over time. Source: </em><em><a href="http://www.childtrends.org/indicators/early-school-readiness/" target="_blank">Child Trends</a>)</em>Trends in the percent of children with school readiness skills over time. Source: Child Trends)

In response to the class split, states offer a role in mitigating socioeconomic barriers. Bipartisan efforts have supported the expansion and improvement of early child care. In addition, over the last 20 years, states have started to use policy to promote family involvement. There are now many laws that incentivize or mandate employers to allow employee leave for school-related activities of their children and laws promoting family, school, and community partnerships to facilitate better communication between educators and parents. Furthermore, states have been working to meet national early learning guidelines. In recent years, President Barack Obama has pushed for universal preschool and other initiatives to improve access to quality early education. Overall, we have seen an upward trend in school readiness skills in early childhood.

Broader Economic Implications

While all parents hope for a high quality education and bright futures for their children, some do not achieve this goal. Working with kids to set educational expectations and plan for their futures is one way to get involved in the educational process. Parents can also involve themselves by promoting extracurricular engagement. Developmental psychologists have reached an overwhelming consensus that involvement in extracurricular activities predicts higher future income and greater civic engagement. Participation in religious activities, a traditional value for the strong family of the 1950s, has also been shown to bolster educational performance, promote involvement in other extracurricular activities like sports, and decrease rates of risky behavior and delinquency. This implies that participation in the community correlates with better childhood development.

Trends in percentage of families that “usually” eat dinner together. (Source: “Our Kids” ...Trends in percentage of families that “usually” eat dinner together. (Source: “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam)
Early adverse experiences, like child abuse or chronic neglect, have been correlated with a range of economic and cultural implications beyond schooling. Adverse experiences in early childhood increase the risk of poor adult health, drug use, depression rates, and weak job performance increases dramatically. Social stability within family environments can promote a variety of positive outcomes. One peculiar yet effective metric of childhood development is family dinners. Due to the nature of parent-child interaction at the dinner table, a child participating in a higher number of family dinners has a decreased risk of smoking, alcoholism, violence, among other implications. This sociability within families can only be present when complex family issues, such as economic anxiety or separation, are minimal.

Policy Proposals

<em>Types of policy proposals related to strengthening families. (Source: Created using </em><em><a href="https://www.canva.com" target="_blank">Canva</a>)</em>Types of policy proposals related to strengthening families. (Source: Created using Canva)


Social policy is the main vehicle used to promote the welfare of low-income families. Conservatives have criticized means-tested programs for discouraging recipients from marriage and work – components often essential to family stability. To address this, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act in May 2016. This bill primarily builds on the principles of the 1996 welfare reform by expanding work requirements in two of the largest means-tested programs in the U.S.: the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill would also make progress in reducing marriage penalties in welfare programs. Liberals are more skeptical about using welfare programs to alter behavior of potential parents when they argue that the primary goal should be to support children in these poor families. A more generous Earned Income Tax Credit would both incentivize and reward work while simultaneously increasing the difference between working poor and nonworking poor, allowing for a greater allocation of welfare benefits to non working mothers.


Middle-income families have responded well to the use of fiscal policy. Due to the bipartisan nature of the goal of strengthening the middle class, we see some continuity between President Barack Obama’s progress on the issue, his final proposals, and President-elect Donald Trump’s early plans. Both advocate for leveraging the tax code to subsidize the costs of child care, college, and a secure retirement.

Under his leadership, strides have been made in these regards but in his 2015 State of the Union address he gave his final plan for improvements. Obama proposed a new $500 second earner credit to cover the additional costs when both spouses are in the workplace – helping 24 million couples a year. He also advocated for a simplification and expansion of the Child Care Tax Credit to $3,000 per dependent child for middle class families. Finally, he proposed  an expansion of tuition tax credits for families with children in college. President-elect Donald Trump has said that he will fight to expand childcare and eldercare deductions, incentivize more employers to provide onsite childcare services, and create tax-free Dependent Care Savings Accounts for both young and elderly dependents, with matching contributions for low-income families.


For both low-income and middle-class families, Congress has not comprehensively reformed family leave policies in over 20 years. American workers currently get 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act — but it is entirely unpaid and applies to only about half of workers. Liberals advocate for federally mandated paid family leave. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would create a new office in the Social Security Administration that would provide benefits to all caregivers that need supplemental income in order to take leave. In addition, it would create a corresponding trust fund in the U.S. Treasury paid for by an increase in payroll taxes. Conservatives have opposed federally mandated paid family leave but have responded with a different approach. Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) proposed the Strong Families Act to give tax credits to firms for providing paid family leave.


Despite a rise in income inequality, all socioeconomic classes can have stronger families. Although the correlation between family strength and household income is evident, in this article we hoped to encourage a dialogue about two other variables: family stability and parental involvement. These two inputs are often overlooked when educational outcomes and economic mobility are discussed. Fortunately, there are policies that can be implemented that can improve these variables for all families. In education reform efforts, a greater emphasis on targeting parental involvement could yield significant gains for children in school readiness and education attainment. Furthermore, establishing more family-based social, fiscal, and labor policies will help to level the playing field for family strength and therefore promote more equal opportunity starting in early childhood. With a unified Republican government, we can expect to see many of the bipartisan and conservative policy proposals become a reality in the near future.

***Special thanks to Professor Ellen Magenheim for her advice and support during the research and writing process.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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