A New Agenda for Social Conservatives

It’s time to drop the fight against same-sex marriage and take up the cause of stay-at-home parents.

stay at home mom.
A future conservative?


Social conservatives find themselves at an impasse. Not too long ago, they saw stopping same-sex marriage as their most urgent priority. That effort has ended in complete failure. While pro-life activism has been more successful, those who favor keeping abortion legal continue to outnumber those who feel otherwise, and that’s not likely to change. What about the election of Donald Trump, a late-in-life convert to the pro-life cause and the fight against same-sex marriage? Apart from promising to appoint Scalia-like justices to the Supreme Court—no small thing, admittedly—Trump didn’t exactly bend over backwards to woo social conservatives during his presidential campaign, and with the socially liberal Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner as his most trusted counselors, he’s not likely to start now. (Trump’s daughter and her husband reportedly urged the president not to cut back on protections for LGBTQ workers.) Yet socially conservative voters concluded that Trump was their best option, which tells you something about the sorry state of the movement.

So what comes next? Should social conservatives give up on politics altogether? Not at all. Social conservatives ought to take up a new crusade, which just might win them new allies. Instead of fixating on the courts or continuing to fight a losing battle against same-sex marriage, they should take up the cause of stay-at-home parents.

In Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century, sociologist Catherine Hakim argues that in every market democracy, women’s attitudes toward work and family life can be divided into three broad clusters. At the extremes you have home-centered women, for whom family life and children are always the first priority, and work-centered women, for whom work or other commitments outside the home take precedence. In between are adaptive women, who tend to greatly outnumber women in the other two categories. While home-centered women are resistant to policy efforts to nudge them into paid employment and work-centered women are equally resistant to policy efforts to nudge them out of it, adaptive women are highly responsive to policy choices and prevailing public attitudes toward women and motherhood. Home-centered women also tend to be more socially conservative than other women, yet it’s rare that socially conservative politicians have been attuned to their material interests. That needs to change.

If stay-at-home parenting sounds like a relic of the past, consider that while both parents work full time in 46 percent of two-parent families, 49 percent consist of one parent who works full time and another who either works part time or stays at home with the children. The vast majority of stay-at-home parents are mothers, but stay-at-home fathers are increasingly common. The Pew Research Center has found that 59 percent of U.S. adults, and 54 percent of U.S. adults younger than 30, believe that in two-parent families, children are better off when one parent stays at home. And there is reason to believe that more Americans would choose to stay at home with their children if they were in a position to do so. Back in October, Gallup found that among mothers who are employed full or part time, 54 percent reported they’d prefer to stay at home with their children.

Yet policymakers haven’t been focused on making life easier for stay-at-home parents. Rather, they’ve generally focused on encouraging stay-at-home parents to start working part time, and nudging those who work part time into working full time. The basic idea there is that falling labor force participation among mothers is a serious economic challenge, and more must be done to help reconcile motherhood (in particular) and labor force participation. Democrats in Congress have introduced a bill that would finance three months of paid parental leave with a modest new payroll tax. Proponents of paid parental leave claim such legislation would substantially increase female labor force participation. Drawing on the work of the economists Melissa Kearney and Lesley Turner, the Obama administration also proposed a second-earner tax credit designed to make paid employment more attractive for primary caregivers, most of whom are mothers. The short-lived Jeb Bush campaign proposed something similar. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump proposed a mixed bag of a child care agenda that included, among other things, paid maternity-leave benefits.

All of these proposals have some merit, especially for single-parent families and two-parent families who can’t make ends meet without both parents in the workforce. But they do very little for two-parent families that are willing to sacrifice some measure of income and comfort to keep one parent at home. In A Mother’s Work, Berkeley sociologist Neil Gilbert argues that instead of reducing the options of motherhood to the traditional role (a sole focus on parenting, with no prospect of a professional life) or a more work-focused role (in which child rearing and other domestic tasks are outsourced to paid professionals), we ought to carve out room for a third way: “Mothers choosing to follow a sequential pattern … might invest all their energies in child care and domestic activities for five to 10 years and then spend the remainder of their active years in paid employment.” Just as there is a strong case for paid parental leave, there is a case for supporting parents who devote years of their working lives to supporting their children’s social and cognitive development. This support can take many forms, from tuition credits designed to help mothers transitioning back into the workforce, to a more generous refundable child credit, which families could use to help finance paid child care or to ease the financial burden of keeping a parent at home.

By taking up the cause of stay-at-home parents, social conservatives wouldn’t just be preaching to the converted. A large (66 percent) majority of Hispanics believe that children are better off with a parent at home, as do half of Democratic voters. Whereas opposition to same-sex marriage put social conservatives at odds with younger Americans, fighting for more choices for the next generation of parents would surely put them in a better light. And who knows? If you win over the parents, you might win over the kids, too.