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Redefining government’s role in society

Jennifer Marshall Patterson | The Biden spending bill and the changing fabric of our lives


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters about the Build Back Better plan. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Redefining government’s role in society
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President Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan would dramatically expand government social safety net programs, among other policy changes. The administration calls it a “once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s future.” But other policymakers have serious misgivings about the legacy it would leave those yet to be born—and not just because of its price tag.

Advocates have clearly stated that the massive spending bill is designed to be “transformational” regarding government’s role in society. That has made both the cost and the character of the bill problematic for several lawmakers.

Speaking of the massive bill, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., rightly said that government spending decisions should be based on “what we need and can afford—not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation.”

The “American Families Plan” is a centerpiece of the $3.5 trillion package, which includes new child care subsidies, universal preschool, and paid family leave programs. Each of these is structured so that government assistance would displace or crowd out other programs and providers. That would leave fewer choices and less flexibility in some of the very areas where families need them most.

Take the new national paid family leave plan, for example. The federal government would reimburse employers for up to 90 percent of what they spend on paid family leave. Over the past half-decade, more and more employers have offered such plans. But this increased private-sector momentum would likely stall as the cost shifts to taxpayers and control moves from employers and employees to government bureaucrats.

Much of the new government funding would end up going to those who already enjoy the benefits of reimbursed time off to care for a family. That means fewer resources targeted to those who need it the most. Moreover, experience from current state paid leave programs suggests that low-income workers would still be much less likely to access paid family leave. In part, that’s because the strings attached to government-run leave programs do not permit the kind of flexible arrangements that could be most helpful for such workers.

Meanwhile, the bill would make government-subsidized preschool universally available beginning at age three, even though half of three-year-olds and two-thirds of four-year-olds are already enrolled. In addition, the new funding would come with regulations about class size, teacher pay, and required college degrees. Such mandates would likely drive smaller family-based and religious providers out of the market, even though many parents clearly prefer them.

As for the proposed child care subsidies, benefits would go to any family—including those making even $250,000 or more. The catch is that funding would be designated for qualified center-based care, while a strong majority of mothers favor family-based care for their children. Only 11 percent of parents prefer full-time center-based care, according to the Institute for Family Studies. Any idea what will be taught in those government-funded centers?

In the final analysis, policies like these seem to be less about carefully targeting assistance to need and more about expanding the scope of the federal government.

No matter how extensive or materially generous, a government safety net is no replacement for a robust social fabric. We are designed to grow in the interdependence of families, to weave lives of mutual support with neighbors, and to connect with others as we work to provide for our households.

Thick networks of relationships are the best kind of social insurance for the unexpected developments of family life. Where these ties are strained or eroded, our efforts—whether in policy or private initiatives—should seek to reweave and strengthen the social fabric, not replace it by expanding the government.

This $3.5 trillion social spending bill comes on the heels of $5 trillion in spending in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These numbers have serious moral implications. Not only do they add to a crushing load of national debt that will be passed on to future generations, they also threaten the long-term security of the programs that already exist. That would leave those most in need at the greatest risk.

There is another way forward. Policymakers can leave more resources in the hands of families and more carefully target assistance to those in need. Anything less is government malpractice—and at such a cost.


Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer Marshall Patterson is a visiting lecturer and director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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Steve Dossin

I agree that this proposal is about government control. The solution is less government control, not "more carefully target[ing} assistance to those in need." That sounds like means testing, which disincentivises work, marriage, and other good things. See the ComingTogether Plan at coming together.org for one idea about how Peter benefits and taxation would work. Yes, benefits for all citizens would be expensive, but not as costly as telling people not to work.