Sending cash to parents, with few strings attached. Expanding Medicaid. Providing child care subsidies to families earning six figures.
The ideas may sound like part of a progressive platform. But they are from an influential group of conservative intellectuals with a direct line to elected politicians. They hope to represent the future of a post-Trump Republican Party — if only, they say, their fellow travelers would abandon Reaganomics once and for all.
These conservatives generally oppose abortion rights. They’re eager to promote marriage, worried about the nation’s declining fertility rate and often resist the trans rights movement.
But they also acknowledge that with abortion now illegal or tightly restricted in half the states, more babies will be born to parents struggling to pay for the basics — rent, health care, groceries and child care — when prices are high and child care slots scarce.
“A full-spectrum family policy has to be about encouraging and supporting people in getting married and starting families,” said Oren Cass, executive director of the American Compass think tank. “It has to be pro-life, but also supportive of those families as they are trying to raise kids in an economic environment where that has become a lot harder to do.”
The idea of spending heavily on family benefits remains an outlier within the Republican Party, which only recently rejected Democrats’ attempts to extend pandemic-era child tax credits.
But a number of conservative members of Congress have embraced new benefits for parents, including Mr. Cass’s former boss, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as the senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri and J.D. Vance of Ohio.
And in President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, he called on Republicans to join him in providing families with child care, paid leave, child tax credits and affordable housing.
Now, Mr. Cass and conservative allies are hoping to shape ideas for the 2024 Republican presidential primary and beyond, targeting ambitious governors who have emphasized making their states family-friendly, such as Ron DeSantis of Florida, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia.
A key priority for this new network of conservative thinkers is for the federal government to send parents cash monthly for each child, a sea change from decades of Republican thinking on family policy. They hope the cash could encourage people to have more children, and allow more parents to stay home full- or part-time when their children are young.
The Run-Up to the 2024 Election
The jockeying for the next presidential race is already underway.
- Education Issues: Donald J. Trump and possible Republican rivals, like Gov. Ron DeSantis, are seizing on race and gender issues in schools, but such messages had a mixed record in the midterms.
- No Invite for Trump: The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, has invited a half-dozen potential G.O.P. presidential candidates to its annual donor retreat — but not Mr. Trump.
- Falling in Line: With the vulnerabilities of Mr. Trump’s campaign becoming evident, the bickering among Democrats about President Biden’s potential bid for re-election has subsided.
- Harris’s Struggles: With Mr. Biden appearing all but certain to run again, concerns are growing over whether Kamala Harris, who is trying to define her vice presidency, will be a liability for the ticket.
“The work of the family is real work,” said Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar who calls herself a pro-life feminist and has written influential essays and books.
She and others debate to what extent benefits should be tied to work requirements, but even the more stringent proposals do not require full-time work. These conservatives believe that many young children are better off at home and are skeptical of policies that would place more in child care centers. And they point to polls that show many parents would prefer to cut their work hours and take care of their babies and toddlers themselves.
In a Republican Party hoping to become the party of parents, these conservative intellectuals do not share the outraged tone of right-wing activists like Christopher Rufo, the “parental rights” crusader battling what he sees as leftist ideology in school curriculums.
While they may agree with much of that cultural critique, supporting families financially, they say, is a pragmatic way to prop up conservative values alongside new restrictions on abortion.
In arguing this, Ms. Bachiochi, Mr. Cass and others in this network are making a big ask: for Republicans to reject what they call the outdated, rigid agenda of the Reagan era, which not only cut working parents from welfare programs, but also vilified mothers receiving public benefits, often in starkly racist terms. If Republicans are to grow support among working-class, multiethnic voters, they say, the party must match pro-family rhetoric with pro-family investments.
The group has founded think tanks, published statements of principle and organized discussions with policymakers to push its cause. Mr. Cass, 39, said his ideas on policy had been shaped by his own family life. His wife has her own career, and they both work from home in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
Mr. Cass served as the domestic policy director for Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign; in 2020, he founded American Compass, a think tank that has tried to build conservative momentum for more generous government support to working families. Its priorities include child cash benefits, wage subsidies and even reviving the labor movement.
That some conservatives have landed on what amounts to a new entitlement program seems to speak to the economic plight of many families. The pressures of wage stagnation, low marriage rates and the opioid epidemic have helped erode Republican anti-government orthodoxy, said Seth Dowland, a historian of the family values movement and professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University.
“There are some Republicans looking at this and saying, ‘We need to invest in rebuilding families and rebuilding communities, because it’s dire in some places — and it’s our voters,’” he said.
Ms. Bachiochi, the mother of seven children, 4 to 21, is a fellow at two think tanks, the Abigail Adams Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her husband is a tech executive and, she said, much more of a baby person than she is. In an interview, she recalled struggling to get reading and writing done while her babies were napping.
She celebrates mothers finding paid work that adds meaning to their lives, but believes government should help parents of both sexes spend more time on child-rearing.
The job of parents, in her view, is to create “adults with virtue who can go out and be good friends, spouses, good employees, good citizens.”
The primary problem, she said, is that “the family is so overtaxed economically that they don’t have time with one another to do that work” of raising children, which is, by nature, time intensive.
Her own ideas have shifted radically over time. In the mid-1990s, as a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, she volunteered for Bernie Sanders, then a congressman. But she also interned for a Washington bipartisan group hoping to shape President Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, which curtailed cash payments to single mothers, while tying remaining benefits to strict work requirements. Through that experience, she said, she came to appreciate that some members of both parties shared a sincere commitment to alleviating poverty.
Since then, Ms. Bachiochi has embraced her Catholic roots, in part through Alcoholics Anonymous. She now considers herself “center right,” she said, but more often argues with Republicans than with Democrats.
“The libertarian right is a little bit blind” to the economic conditions families live under, Ms. Bachiochi said, noting that many parents struggle with the low pay and irregular hours of service jobs, working long days while leaving their children with less-than-ideal care.
Patrick T. Brown, 33, a former congressional staffer and current fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, previously cared for his children full-time. Now, he works part-time from home in Columbia, S.C., and takes charge of his four children after school while his wife works as a college professor. He supports child cash benefits, expanding Medicaid to more mothers and increasing the supply of affordable housing.
“There are definitely some conservatives who still point to the 1950s as a normative vision for family life,” Mr. Brown said, referencing the “Leave It to Beaver” white, suburban family with a stay-at-home wife.
“That debate is stale,” he added. “We shouldn’t expect we can turn back the clock — and we shouldn’t really want to.”
Mr. Brown, Mr. Cass and Ms. Bachiochi are well known on Capitol Hill.
Their influence can been seen in Mr. Romney’s bill to expand the child tax credit, which would provide families earning up to $400,000 with $350 in cash per month for each child under 6, and $250 per month for children 6 to 17.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Rubio, Republican of Florida, have a separate proposal to allow workers to draw from future Social Security payments to fund parental leave.
And last year, Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, introduced a bill that would subsidize child care for families earning up to 150 percent of their state’s median income, which in some states approaches $200,00 for a family of four.
These proposals have attracted criticism from both conservatives and liberals.
Scott Winship, director of the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, applauded any attempt to move away from conservative social policy based in “cultural grievance.” But he argued that many of the proposals were overly generous to middle-class and upper middle-class parents.
“I’d focus much more strongly on low-income families,” he said. “We have this huge deficit, and we need to start husbanding our resources in a more serious way.”
A cost-conscious approach has also been embraced by many Republican governors, who over the past year have tried to address child care shortages primarily through deregulation — increasing class sizes in child care programs, for example.
Both parties are still deeply divided over whether benefits should be tied to work requirements — a core belief of centrists like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, and conservatives like Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican.
When Senator Romney first introduced his Family Security Act in 2021, it offered cash to parents no matter their work history. After an outcry from Republicans and Mr. Cass, he revised the proposal in 2022 to require $10,000 in family income to receive the full benefit.
Senator Hawley of Missouri, a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, has also proposed monthly cash payments to parents of children younger than 13 who meet a modest work requirement.
Progressives have criticized these plans for favoring married couples and leaving out caregivers without earnings, such as college students, parents with disabilities or retired grandparents.
The family policy ideas in the Democrats’ Build Back Better bill were more sweeping. But none became law.
Now, some Republicans and Democrats say that a bipartisan deal on family policy would likely require Republicans to rally around proposals like Senator Romney’s — a difficult goal.
Senator Romney is committed to building support for “federal policies to be more pro-family,” he said in a written statement. “This includes earning support from Republican colleagues.”