Federalism for Families

May 3, 2023

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published on May 2, 2023 by The American Mind.

Red states should engineer policies to encourage higher birth rates and to attract large families.

Count me as one of those generally skeptical that tax breaks, tax credits, housing allowances, and other economic incentives for parents will decisively increase birth rates. In general, values like honor, pride, and shame affect how people behave more than any economic incentives. When family life—especially motherhood—is dishonored, birth rates decline; when honored, they rise.

South Korea has been throwing billions at families to encourage natality for more than a decade, only to see birth rates crater to historically unprecedented lows. Israel has the same family incentives it had two decades ago, but its total fertility rate has skyrocketed to more than 3.0, making it the only developed nation in the world whose population is growing exclusive of immigration. Family-friendly economic policies such as those in Hungary and Poland are not irrelevant, but not as important as other normative factors.

No American state has ever tried family allowance or tax credit, however. Such incentives, combined with policies oriented toward promoting the centrality of the family to American life, might work.

A Texas lawmaker, Bryan Slaton, has introduced a bill to give property tax credits to qualified married couples with large families. “A man and a woman who are legally married to each other, neither of whom have been divorced,” would receive a 40% credit on property taxes when they had a fourth child, and then 10% more for every additional child up to 10, when the entire 100% of their property taxes would be returned. Slaton thinks this legislation would incentivize birth rates, as well vindicate Judeo-Christian injunctions about the importance of childbirth.

While Texas has one of the highest property tax rates in the nation (ranking 45th out of 50), its average property tax bill comes in at just under $4,000. A discount of a few thousand dollars, while certainly welcome, is too small an incentive to encourage many more childbirths. The principle of the legislation has wide application, though. Additional tax breaks or even tax credits could increase the disparity between what single people and childless couples pay versus families with many children. And if these policies did not increase birth rates in Texas, they might draw families with large broods to move to the Lone Star State.

Our post-COVID world has revealed how states compete with each other for companies, for citizens, and for retirees. When crime becomes intolerable in Portland, homelessness too dominant in San Francisco, or COVID vaccine policies threaten livelihoods in New York, people move to friendlier climes like Florida and Texas. George Mason Law Professor Michael Greve calls this competitive federalism.

Building on that idea, states could cultivate family-friendly environments by adopting policies to induce families with large broods to emigrate. States could start by building relatively wholesome environments for raising children. Protecting kids from publicly-sponsored gender wokeness is a great first step. States could, like Florida, seek to prevent state-sponsored moral corruption of children by regulating the teaching of gender identity in the schools, expunging porn from public libraries, and prohibiting drag queen performances targeted at or even including children. Perhaps they could adopt a more civilized sex education, emphasizing that sex finds a place in marriage and that boys and girls will have somewhat different destinies in family life.

States could increase the power of such parents. They could, again, like Florida and others, adopt generous school choice programs so parents can better steer their children’s education. They could promote a healthy, reasonable patriotism through directed curriculum adoption like Florida. Perhaps religious charter schools could be tried, along with robust protections for homeschooling. Utah’s law on social media, which requires adult approval for minors to open accounts, could be a model for other states.

Such states might start being more intentional about celebrating motherhood and responsible fatherhood through cultural messaging on social media, public service announcements, and in the schools. State public television could be enlisted to produce pro-family programming. States could seek to attract churches aligned with a family-friendly mission through targeted advertising and robust law enforcement.

All the while, lefties will moan that the state makes them uncomfortable and then threaten to leave. Plenty of U-Haul trucks are available! Family-friendly citizens in; other citizens out.

The culture follows public opinion. As more large families gather into family-friendly states, having large families becomes less freaky and more normal and honorable. Such policies could then have a multiplier effect. There might be more large families in the next generation, for instance, so that states with more large families beget more large families. Their birth rates might then ultimately rise, while those in the other states would continue to lag behind. More profound changes in family law—like reeling back our destructive no-fault, at-will divorce regime—might become a realistic possibility in states where large numbers of citizens come from large, intact families.

Representative Slaton’s proposal seems to be going nowhere in Austin, but it contains the seed of an aggressive policy. Our system of competitive federalism allows states to participate in choosing their own citizens, just as the conditions of good government allow citizens to choose their own states. Such states need not just brag about gaining citizens. They should aim to be more selective in gaining the right kind of citizens. Through such policies, red states just might create bastions of freedom and family in America’s dystopic future.