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Republicans' 'marriage bonus' is social engineering at its worst

Republicans' 'marriage bonus' is social engineering at its worst

Struggling to raise young children and hold down a demanding job? No need to worry, now that Republican leaders aim to buoy your family, even outdo President BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE’s $1.8 trillion in child care aid.

There is one catch: if you are not married, expect a tax penalty.

Republican leaders are scrambling over soaring voter support of Biden’s efforts to rekindle the economy and backstop the nation's families. So, why not stir old cultural divides, pressing tax cuts to “reward marriage,” as Senator Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyPence heckled with calls of 'traitor' at conservative conference Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior MORE (R-Mo.) urges. His newly introduced “Parent Tax Credit'' would award only wedded parents $1,000 monthly to help raise their children.

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If your spouse dies or divorce leads to single parenthood, Republicans deem you morally unworthy of their “marriage bonus,” as Hawley calls it. He’s the Senator who raised his fist in solidarity, while parading before pro-Trump protestors, moments before they stormed the capitol last January.

This Republican counter to Biden's child care aid offers the most intrusive attempt at social engineering seen in decades. Lead the life of housewife June Cleaver, awaiting her husband's return from work, martini in hand, and Republican leaders will lower your taxes. But nearly one-third of the nation's parents no longer mimic “Leave It to Beaver” fantasy: they have lost a spouse or raise youngsters on their own.

Republicans claim Biden will dictate where and how children must be raised. “It turns out that normal Americans care more about their families than their jobs,” tweeted J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame, a likely Republican senate candidate in Ohio. "They want a family policy that doesn’t shunt their kids into crap day care.”

Have uber-conservatives like Hawley and Vance decided to run against the Protestant work ethic? Or, is this ideological flashback to the 1970s really about yanking working mothers back into the home, where Republican men believe they belong? Distract voters from the rising cost of child care and pre-K, while claiming that Big Brother is knocking at the door.

Discerning conservatives do have a point. Senior White House officials press a sharp moral stance as well, seeing mom and dad as worker bees. “We want parents to be in the workforce, especially mothers,” said Susan RiceSusan RiceDemocrats control the language of politics and culture — but for how long? The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden faces pressure amid infrastructure negotiations Republicans' 'marriage bonus' is social engineering at its worst MORE, head of Biden’s domestic policy council, sketching their blueprint for free and universal pre-K.

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But culturally venomous Republicans then distort what Biden proposes or has already accomplished. The Congress in March approved making two family tax credits fully refundable. Soon after filing taxes this month, low and middle-income families will receive up to $11,400 in child care aid. Tax refunds are entirely fungible: cash to buy books or clothes for their youngsters, or to pay a warm and fuzzy aunt to provide child care.

These tax credits vary based on the count of children at home, not contingent on whether parents are married, as required under Hawley’s cash-for-the-pious plan. Biden’s most recent proposal relies heavily on parental vouchers, allowing parents to choose a paid babysitter or pre-K center, expanding a federal program first created by George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Vance also railed against universal preschool in a Wall Street Journal essay last week, citing depressed social development among children graduating from Quebec's long-running program. It's a troubling finding, likely due to uneven quality. But scholars also discovered accelerated learning of math concepts among pre-K graduates, and Quebec's program elevates children from low-income families overall.

Democrats must defend why every parent should be induced to enroll their 3 or 4-year-old in public school. Teacher unions praise the idea, faced with declining enrollments and sniffing a new market. But we know that pre-K quality tends to be regressively distributed: better-off families access pre-K's with stronger teachers and rich classroom activities. Unbridled expansion of preschool could harden, rather than narrow, stark disparities in children’s early learning. 

But culture warriors like Hawley and Vance care little about relieving the economic stress that besets millions of families, or enriching children’s initial growth. Instead, they seek advantage by casting stones at working mothers or shaming single parents trying to raise their kids right. 

Yes, all parents must retain the right to shape child-rearing as they see it. But in cosmopolitan America we must backstop the economic vitality of families, advanced by affordable and quality child-care options.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of When Schools Work (Johns Hopkins).