Transcript: Sen. Mitt Romney and columnist Ross Douthat on the Family Security Act

March 24, 2021

The following is an unedited transcript of a conversation with Sen. Mitt Romney and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat during a virtual event with Sutherland President Rick Larsen on March 23, 2021, about Romney’s Family Security Act. Watch the full video here.

Rick Larsen

Senator Romney, how are you today?

Sen. Mitt Romney

I’m doing great. Thanks, Rick. Good to be with you today.

Larsen

It’s good to be with you. Thank you for joining us. We’re going to be addressing your proposal in as much detail as we possibly can, and that’s going to include some criticisms. But to set the table, and before we get into that, I would love to hear your highest-level aspirational summary of the Family Security Act. Where did it come from and what are your objectives?

Romney

Well, I’ll begin with the truth, which is it wasn’t my idea. I saw a problem. I recognized a problem, but I didn’t have a proposed solution, but a couple of members of my staff began looking at what was being done in other countries, looking at the experience of other countries, reading literature, particularly from various think tanks here in D.C., and came up with a proposal and I jumped onto it. What was the problem I was concerned about? Pretty simply, and that was family formation and births in this country are not going the right direction. As a matter of fact, if we had maintained the birth rate that we had back in 2008, why, we would have 5.8 million more Americans today. And they would, of course, be those who would be helping to contribute to the growth of our economy down the road. So that was the concern, people not having kids.

Now, there’s some other related concerns. We saw polls that showed a number of folks saying that they were delaying having children because of the cost of having a child. Others saying they were having fewer children because of the cost of the child. We saw, for instance, that moms who decided to have an abortion, 70% of the time, they said that one of the major reasons for their decision was inability to care for the child financially. So the declining birth rate seemed to be a function of a number of elements. I would note that things got worse with the COVID crisis, in terms of people’s economic insecurity. And that may…well, there’s an argument as to whether it’s going to mean a spike in births or a decline in births in the country. But the long-term trend hear, going back to the last 12 years, is a continuing decline in birth rates. And any civilization, any society wants to maintain itself and we’re not.

And so the concern was okay, how do we maintain our birth rate and our civilization, encourage family formation, at the same time, how do we make sure, to the extent we can, that the children are getting the appropriate food and nutrition, healthcare, shelter, and so forth? And then we began looking at some of the programs we already have to support families. We spend about $500 billion a year supporting families. So are we doing it as well as we could?

And we noticed there were some things that’s like, well, this just jumps out at you. We still have a substantial marriage penalty. You lose some financial benefit by getting married. Well, no wonder people are not getting married as often as they might, because they recognize that there’s a cost to doing so. That was one very obvious concern.

And we said, look, let’s see if we can’t find a way to get people…to provide the incentives for people to have kids and to maintain our population, also provide support for these children, but not raise taxes and not borrow more money by virtue of doing so. And probably the biggest distinction between my plan and that the President is proposing, or at least one of the biggest differences, is that his plan is not paid for. It’s just massive new borrowing and no compensating balances.

So that’s how it started, Rick. And I should say it’s certainly not cast in concrete. As all things here in Washington, if it’s going to be successful, it’s going to be negotiated with Democrats and Republicans, and there’re going to be things added and some taken out. But I think it’s important for us, as conservatives, to say we care about family formation. We care about having babies. We care about a mom, a pregnant mom who would like to keep a child, but can’t afford to, and decides to have an abortion. These are the things we care about. And my proposal is designed to make things better on those fronts, imperfect as it is.

Larsen

Thank you. Ross, welcome. You’ve been generally favorable in your assessment of the plan. We’ll get into a lot of the details, but at a high level, why are you favorable in response to this plan?

Douthat

Well, first of all, Rick, thanks so much for having me. I’m grateful to the Senator for putting forward the proposal, if only because newspaper columnists always need things to write about. And so he’s helped me with the most important part of my job and my support of my own family, I suppose.

But I mean, I think that the Senator actually sketched out the basic picture pretty well. And this actually ties into, I think, some of the arguments about this plan among conservatives, but if you go back 20 or 25 years, to the last time there was a big conservative debate about family policy and anti-poverty policy, in the era that brought us welfare reform, in the mid-1990s, American birth rates were slightly above replacement level. We were doing much better than the rest of the developed world in terms of people getting married and having kids. The challenge then was that we had a rising teen birth rate, which had dipped a bit in the 1970s and then had gone up in the 1980s and 1990s, and we had, you know, this problem of basically chronic poverty combined with rising teen birth rates that welfare reform set out to solve. And that sort of created, I think, the historical experience through which a lot of older conservatives are looking at this proposal, when they worry about its potential effects on work, basically, work incentives for low-income Americans.

For younger conservatives, by which I mean people younger than me since I’m now over 40, so I’m officially no longer a young conservative, the experience of the last 20 years has basically been one where teen birth rates have dropped dramatically. So it seems like that problem was effectively addressed, but then overall birth rates have dropped with them. And the core economic dynamic, as far as I can understand it, is that, you know, the cost of lots of things in American society have gone down. It’s easier to buy a computer. It’s cheaper to buy a TV. You know, there are all kinds of things that are cheaper than they used to be. The cost of raising kids has not gotten cheaper. The cost of caring for a kid never gets cheaper because it requires a parent or a caregiver full time and the cost of goods like schools, healthcare, and so on has stayed steady or gone up. So you have a basic economic problem where not having kids is cheaper than it used to be. And having kids is at least as expensive, if not more expensive. And that’s not the only factor driving down the U.S. birth rate, but it’s the economic component of the problem.

And for conservatives who’ve grown up with, sort of, that as the core challenge, basically a, kind of, slow-burning demographic crisis, they are more likely, I think, to respond favorably to the plan’s focus than they are to worry about its effects on work incentives at the bottom of the income level. The nub of the debate is not, I think, the arc of the plan overall, but the question of what it means for…in effect, non-working single mothers, right? Like should we want them to be working and how much pressure should we put on them to work and how does this plan affect them? And also marriage incentives in the ways that the Senator was discussing.

Larsen

That’s a perfect tee up. Let’s dive in. We hope to represent some of the questions that we’ve been asked as we’ve assessed the plan and continue to do so. So let’s address work requirements right up front. Senator, it seems like a fear of abuse seems to guide most child and family welfare policy discussions. And as Ross mentioned, there is this existing conservative view that work and self-sufficiency should be the goal of any plan. So when the concept of something more permanent comes up, you get conservative pushback.

TANF is one of the programs that would roll up under one of your plans, and that’s one that carries a work requirement, the requirement for interviews and accountability. Well, TANF has been hailed as both a success and as a tangle of inconsistent state-applied incentives. In your view, which is it, and how do you respond to criticisms that the Family Security Act could have an adverse effect on people’s willingness to work and seek self-sufficiency?

Romney

Well, first of all, let me just underscore, I think, the obvious, which is I’m very much in favor of work and want to maintain substantial work incentives to get people into the workforce. So I’m not looking to eliminate work incentives, and in our plan, we retain, of course, the earned income tax credit system, EIGC, which provides incentives for people to go to work and get additional funding as they’re working, and by the way, that number goes up as they do more work.

But what I’d like to do is to separate, if you will, two things, one is an incentive to work; and secondly, an incentive to have children or the ability to have children. So those are both important things. Sometimes if you put them together, you may end up with a single program which may not be ideal in doing one or the other. And in this case, I think our current program is not ideal in creating incentives for people to have children. And the evidence for that is that they’re not having children.

We understand, for instance, that you want to have a sliding scale, meaning people are not going to lose money if they start making more money or work longer hours, so we’ve created a system that people get more, if you will, tax credit the more they work and the more they earn, which sounds great, except let’s say you have a single mom who’s earning minimum wage. She’s getting $15,000 a year. Well, should she get substantially less for her child than someone who’s earning $30,000 a year? Now, she should get less supported earned income tax credit, perhaps, but do you want to give her less for the child? And my answer is no, you want her to get the same amount for the child as someone who’s earning $100,000 a year, because in creating an incentive for people to have children, I don’t care whether the mom is working a minimum wage job earning $16,000 a year, or whether she’s a lawyer earning $100,000. So I separate the two programs and want to make sure that we do retain the work incentive and we don’t create a setting where people don’t want to go to work and think, “Oh, I’ve got a child payment that’s going to be coming in so I don’t need to work.”

Interestingly, there are a number of countries, Canada among them, that have put in place the type of program that I propose, and their results are a little counterintuitive, which is that as they’ve put it in place, married moms have, in many cases, tended to leave the workforce and stay home and help raise the kids. On the other hand, single moms have decided to re-enter the workforce and are more likely to work now than they were before. And I don’t know that I have a great logic for the latter. I think, in some respects, moms recognize, “My child’s going to be okay. I don’t have that income fear. And in that income insecurity, I’m willing to go back to work again,” and they do. And in the case of married moms, you have a number of couples that frankly, while the child, particularly is young, they’d like to have one of the two of the parents stay home and help raise the child. I don’t think that’s a negative for society. I don’t want to make that decision for a couple, but I want them to have the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

So by the way, the same feature has been founded in Germany and other places that have put in place the type of program I’m describing, which is it has not led to single moms exiting the workforce. In fact, it’s led to single moms more likely getting into the workforce. So obviously, I want to keep a work incentive there. That’s a very high priority. I also want to have an incentive for having babies.

Larsen

Ross, in your assessment, is this focus on the work requirement and the fears over what incentives may be created, is that misplaced? How do you read it?

Douthat

I mean, the reality is that, you know, we can’t know for sure, right? Like public policy is always…you know, it’s both a science and an art at the same time. Right? So I think most people on the conservative side look back at welfare reform and see that it’s successfully helped encourage more people to move from welfare onto work. Right. So that’s a good thing.

So then the question is what was the specific mechanism that led to that happening? Was it that they were just given less money, and so they were less likely to become dependent and go back to work? That’s one argument. If that’s true, then there is probably some danger in giving a cash benefit, like the Senator’s proposal, directly to very low-income workers. Alternatively, it may be that welfare reform got rid of these huge benefit cliffs, basically, the welfare reform of the 1990s, where you would lose all of your benefits at once if you took a job. And obviously, when you have that kind of system in place, there are clearly strong incentives not to go to work or not to work harder, work longer hours, get a raise and so on. The Senator’s plan doesn’t create that kind of benefit cliff. In fact, it gets rid of some benefit cliffs, you know, tries to reduce the marriage penalty, as he mentioned. So if that theory is right, then you wouldn’t expect this kind of plan to create those kind of incentives.

I think there is a perfectly reasonable story to explain, like the Canadian results that the Senator mentioned. Basically, you know, low-income mothers who have more money can hire caregivers to take care of their child part time, in a way where if you don’t have money, you have to… The child has be taken care of. Right? And in the current system we have, you often will have these stories of, you know, mothers who work at a fast-food restaurant and can’t find childcare and they end up leaving their kid to play in a public park, which would have worked fine in the America of 1957, but in the slightly crazier America of 2021, they ended up arrested for child neglect in some kind of horrifying story. And those are the kind of mothers where, you know, an extra few thousand dollars means they can…you know, maybe it’s a babysitter, maybe it’s a relative, but they can…it’s easier for them to work something out.

If the Senator is right, and if the Canadian experiment holds true in the U.S., then that would probably be the mechanism, that there are people who want to work part time can’t because they can’t make that leap to paying for childcare. This might help them. That would be how you would get more work rather than less.

Larsen

Interesting. Senator, this goes perfectly into a second concern that we’ve heard among fellow conservatives. So the Biden administration has embedded in the stimulus plan a different version of a payment program for families with children, and many are calling that an experiment in universal basic income, this UBI concept. Some came out with the same immediate critique of your plan. How does yours differ? You touched on it, but let’s explore a little more how your proposal differs from what the Biden administration is putting forward. And how do you defend the fact that it’s not a step towards universal basic income?

Romney

Well, I’ll take that last piece first, which is in universal basic income, you get a check from government for being alive. There’s no behavior which you’re encouraging. There’s no problem you’re looking to overcome in terms of a societal choice. In this case, we’re creating an incentive for people to be able to form families and to have children because we’re recognizing that we’re not reproducing ourselves. So this has a purpose and an incentive. The other is simply a check for breathing air, which so far as I know is involuntary. So that’s one distinction.

With regards to the Biden plan, I admit to not being an expert, but there are a number of things that leap out at you. One is it’s not permanent. It began as a one-year proposal, and then, most recently, the administration is saying they want to make it a five-year program, but they’ve not established something which is permanent, and in the absence of permanence, the incentive is not as clear to a young couple deciding whether they can have another child or not.

Another difference, of course, is that it’s very, very expensive, which is they not only have the payment of a nature which is similar to that which I propose, but they’re also putting a lot of money into childcare. In my case, we give money to a mom or to a couple, and they can decide whether they want to hire the grandmother to care for the kids or a childcare center, or one of them decides to stay home, if they’re a two-parent family, to care for the child. We’re indifferent. We don’t create an incentive to use childcare. The President’s plan not only gives checks to folks on a monthly basis, but it also pays up to $8,000 per child for childcare. And if you got two kids, $16,000. So it’s creating an enormous incentive to basically have your child raised in childcare. And that’s in part, because I think the administration and many on the left feel that a mother’s place is in the workplace. And we’re saying a mother’s place is wherever she would like it to be, either in the workplace or at home, and that’s her choice, and we’ll give her the wherewithal to make that decision on her own, as opposed to saying, “Hey, put your child to childcare. We’re going to give you $8,000, or $16,000 if you got two, to do so.”

And I’ll mention one more thing. And that is one which is going to become increasingly important, I believe, to conservatives across the country, which is the President’s not paying for anything yet. And the enormity of the financial gap has not yet been revealed. So we know with regards to the COVID relief plan, that’s being paid for entirely by debt. But the infrastructure plan, what he’s calling the infrastructure plan and an ongoing child support program, these things total at least $3 trillion. And, you know, the President’s people say, “Well, we’re going to raise the corporate tax rate.” It’s 21% today, they’ve talked about raising it to 28%. Okay, raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% will generate $79 billion a year. That’s a good deal of money, but it’s not $3 trillion. It’s nowhere near enough to pay for the kinds of programs the President’s proposing, because he’s going on, he’s proposing in this plan, according to the newspapers, he’s proposal universal pre-K, pre-kindergarten that is, obviously childcare, the free college. It’s a massive and… And, of course, Medicare is going to be brought down to age 60, instead of age 65. It’s a massively expensive agenda that the President has…doesn’t have a way to pay for it. Certainly not by just taxing corporations. So I don’t know where he’s going to go. So I’ll just note with regards to this program, that his is not paid for and mine is.

Now, last thing I mentioned, you did raise the question about our current programs, which is the TANF program, and the fact that it’s working in some states, I note it does work in some states, and probably not in others. And I’m open to whether we keep the best of TANF, whether we fold it in somehow or not, depending on our experience in different states. Some states are just using TANF to fill budget holes and are not really using it in the way it was intended. So we did take a close look at that, but of my total program, I believe TANF accounts for some $16 billion of the pay for and so I can go elsewhere if I need to, if that program is really effective and working. At the same time, I think the principle of making sure we pay for any program we introduce is a good one.

Larsen

Ross, as I listened to that answer, there certainly should be comfort for conservatives. If you compare the Senator’s plan with the much broader social agenda of the Biden administration, you quickly see, by comparison, well, it’s not that. But having said that, is there a division within conservative view and conservative principles now, are some becoming more tolerant with the idea of government making these kinds of regular payments? And is that in violation of core conservative values?

Douthat

I mean, I think there’s a lot of disagreement about what can core conservative values actually are, right. The president of the United States for the last four years, Donald Trump, you know, seemed to be in violation of certain things that were officially core conservative values before his ascent in 2016. And, you know, like the Senator, I was not a great admirer of President Trump, but I did actually appreciate the extent to which, you know, having him as president, sort of, broke open a lot of conversations within conservatism that had been somewhat frozen in amber, really since the Ronald Reagan era.

And I think there’s an open question whether conservatism is a set of axioms, right, that always… You know, you can tell whether a policy is good or bad just by saying, you know, does it limit government or does it expand it? Does it spend money or not? That’s one way of looking at it. Or you can say that conservatism is, you know, a set of values with policy corollaries that are adaptable to different moments, right? So, you know, at the height of the baby boom in the United States of America, if people are having, you know, 3.5 kids per couple, and there’s, sort of, a norm of large-scale family formation in the country, and the marriage rate is really high, you know, does the government need to help support families in the way that the Senator’s plan proposes? I think a conservative might reasonably say not. In an environment where you have a massive birth dearth and where the cost of raising kids is become detached from the cost of a lot of everyday goods, maybe then you do need this kind of program. And, you know, as the Senator suggests, you pay for it by shifting money out of other areas.

I guess, you know, I’m here to stress the complexity of all of this, right? So, you know, Robert Doar, who is the head of AEI where I’m honored to be a fellow, wrote a piece critical of the Senator’s plan for the Institute for Family Studies, where he made… The first point he made was a very familiar conservative critique. He said, you know, “This risks increasing dependency,” and so on. But then he also said, you know, “Based on my experience working with social services in the city of New York, you actually need some of that layer of bureaucracy that other conservatives might be critical of to tell what’s going on in some of these families, right, that you actually need the connection with a social worker that maybe TANF provides, you know, in the best case scenario, and just doing a family benefit does not.” Is that a conservative argument or not? You could look at it either way.

But I think it’s worth approaching some of these problems in a pragmatic spirit where you say, “Look, as conservatives, we want to live in an America where, you know, at the very least, families can have the number of kids they say they want to have,” which they’re not, at the moment. And you could also go beyond that kind of pragmatism, even to a sort of political pragmatism and say, “What is the basis for conservative politics in America?” The basis for conservative politics is married families with kids. And if you have a social system where fewer and fewer people are getting married and having kids, you know, you can quote small government doctrine all you want, but you aren’t going to have conservatism anymore, period.

Those are a lot of different responses, but I think that all add up to the idea that what exactly conservatism should stand for is something that has to be debated anew in every particular political moment.

Larsen

[inaudible 00:29:09] also, we can all smile and we can seek to define conservatism, it’s probably a perilous effort. Senator Romney, is there a scenario, if we’re talking about sustainability, small government versus larger government, is there a built-in contradiction in the plan? Is there a scenario where, in committing to these guaranteed payments to families with children, is there a scenario where the birth rate rises to the point where the processes that pay for the program are now exceeded by the number of children that are being born? Is there any scenario where it becomes self-defeating and is so successful it can’t pay for itself?

Douthat

We should be so lucky.

Romney

Exactly. I agree with Ross on that.

Larsen

Is that a problem you’d gladly take?

Romney

Yeah, that’s a problem, you know, I’d be happy to take. We’re not there. I mean, I would love to see men and women getting married, having children, teaching them American values, having them go to work. I think that’s, kind of, the dream.

And I also have to admit, I love listening to Ross Douthat. I don’t know, how do you pronounce your last name? Is it do- Douthat?

Douthat

It’s Douthat, but it’s okay. It’s like the Dow Jones, but, you know, without the financial returns, most of the time.

Romney

I read his columns with great interest. And I typically find myself nodding my head, but I’ve never known quite how to pronounce that name, Douthat. All right, I’m a little better now.

I’m concerned that we really face some very unusual challenges. And I know we haven’t dug into these, but the emergence of China, for instance, well, as a power which anticipates and plans to basically dominate the world suggests that America better get our act together pretty soon, because we’re on a… Freedom itself is on a decline around the world, has been for the last 15 years, and authoritarianism pushed by China and Russia is expanding. And I know nothing more important to the base of our nation than families and children. So encouraging the formation of families and the birth of children, taking away the marriage penalty, to the extent it exists, makes a lot of sense, and giving women the freedom to choose whether they want to be home to raise their child or whether, instead, they want to have their child in childcare, those kinds of freedoms, I think, are important in the context of the extraordinary challenges we face as a nation.

Larsen

Thank you. Ross, you mentioned AEI, an organization that I respect deeply, is one of the examples of a think tank very divided internally as to where this stands. You cited Robert Doar, another of your colleagues made the statement that the Romney plan will allow families to have the number of children they want to have, for the reasons that have been cited in this discussion. Drawing on your historical view, and Senator Romney, drawing on your study of some of these principles applied in other places, is an increased birth rate, are these behavioral predictions something that we can reliably or even reasonably make? Are there other factors beyond finances that America is facing that might be leading to the challenges facing the institution of a family?

Romney

I will let Ross start off with that one, and I’ll listen to what he has to say and then probably agree with him.

Douthat

I mean, yes, absolutely. The reality is that what you’re trying to do with any kind of family policy is build a kind of foundation on which a successful culture can flourish. You’re never going to be able to sort of socially engineer away a fertility decline with public policy alone. Now, does that mean it doesn’t have an effect? No, it absolutely has an effect. But it has an effect mostly, sort of, at the margins.

So if you look at case studies from East Asia and Eastern European countries have a lot of programs like this, you know, if your birth rate is, let’s say, 1.6 children per women, and your goal is to get it to at, hopefully, replacement level, at least two children per women, most American women say they want more children than that. So, let’s be ambitious and say your goal is to get to 2.4 children, right? So you’re at 1.6. The policy alone maybe gets you to 1.7 or 1.8. You know, this is just a guesstimate. Now, that’s a lot of kids. As the Senator said, you know, you can number the births we haven’t had just based on the last eight years of fertility decline in the millions. And we’ll probably have a few hundred thousand more from a COVID baby bust. So those kinds of changes aren’t small, but they don’t get you where you want to go. But they create a context in which then, if you get some kind of cultural change, then the foundation is there to make it easier to make the next leap.

And look, the cultural change you need, I mean, there is a real, sort of, challenge in how the sexes relate to one another in the developed world right now. And it’s driven by economic forces, but it’s also driven by social forces. It’s driven by how the internet has changed social life and dating life. But, you know, and again, this is a big difference from the 1990s. In the 1990s, we were worried that teenagers and young adults were having too much sex. Now, we’re worried that they’re having too little sex. There’s a decline of sex, dating, relationships, marriage, and kids. It’s a continuum of, sort of, relational failure. And, you know, this is something for families, churches, communities, everybody has to reckon with this. There isn’t, you know, a perfect policy solution. What you’re trying to do with public policy is say, you know, build it so it’s there when they come. And that, I think, is the reasonable goal for family policy, however you end up designing it.

Romney

Yeah. Thank you, Ross. I don’t disagree with any of that. I do believe that there are dynamics in our developed world today that are contributing to the reduction in births. No question about that. And the dating, the relationship between the sexist, the sexual revolution, so to speak, all of these things, I think, have had an impact on marriage.

I would add that I think the economic uncertainty, particularly at the lower level of our economic strata, has made people sometimes more reluctant to get married and make the commitment of a relationship with another person and then having children. So a number of these elements, I think, are contributing to the declining birth rate that you’re seeing here and in other developed nations.

But I also recognize that in our public policy, we are also not helping. A very simple change, you know, that I make in the plan that I proposed is saying, instead of giving people a tax credit at the end of the tax year, where they might get a check or a refund of $5,000 or $6,000, we’re going to make a monthly payment. It’s not that it’s a lot more money or that we’re putting more money into the program. No, it’s just saying let’s go to a monthly program instead of an annual program, because as an annual program, why, people are going to get a check, if you get a check for $5,000, what are you gonna spend it on? Maybe the car, maybe the TV, maybe the sofa, but it’s probably not going to be changing the child’s food and healthcare and clothing, whereas along the way, that kind of check is going to be more likely to be devoted to the nurturing of that child.

As people in public service and in political life, there’s only so much you can deal with. And one of the things we can deal with is recognizing that when men and women are saying to us, they would like to have more children if they could afford them, we’re saying, well, let’s see if we can’t take some of the money we’re already spending and give you the confidence that now, you will be able to afford those children. If what they’re telling us is true, and if the experience of other countries is to be believed to apply here as well, then you’re going to see a program such as the one I’ve described encouraging, as Ross has indicated, just a little increase, Ross, in the birth rate in our country over time.

Douthat

It’s a second-best policy to mass conversions to Mormonism, which is unfortunately beyond the purview of the federal government.

Romney

Yeah. Someone has noted that this was clearly not a plan I worked out with my church because we limit the payments to five children. You don’t get more checks if you go above five children.

Douthat

We need to talk about that, Senator. I just want to throw out there, since I have the Senator here, I mean, I think that in this, sort of, inter-conservative debate about this proposal, you could imagine, for instance, a compromise where, you know, you had payments to people who don’t have any income that went through a child’s like fourth or fifth year, for instance, right. Because a lot of this debate about the balance of work and family is about, you know, caring for children before they’re old enough to go to school. Right. There’s a difference between Senator Romney and Senator Marco Rubio’s plan, and if I were sitting down and hashing out a compromise, that’s actually what I would look at. I would say, “Look, you know, you have the payments go to, you know, non-working parents when the kid is before school age, and then you have the payment diminish or phase out, unless you’re working when a kid is 11 or 12.” So, I mean, that’s just one idea.

I think there are a bunch of different ways that you could take the Senator’s proposal and, you know, sort of, finesse it to answer some conservative objections.

Romney

Yeah. And some of them actually said, you know, how about looking back and seeing if the person had been working before, and if they’d been paying taxes before, and if they have, then these benefits could apply. I mean, there are a number of good ideas, Ross, that I think could be incorporated into what we’ve what we’ve put together and bring us, as conservatives, together. I think we’re wise to identify the potential flaws in respect to our respective plans, but we’re also wise to come together and say, “Okay, can we make something work here,” and then present that to the Democrats, as opposed to be seen constantly as saying no to what they come up with. And in this case, you know, we beat them to the punch. Let’s take advantage of that.

Larsen

Senator, a question that came in from the audience, this is a reasonable question. And it’s also one that may justify a second session, and we can’t even scratch the surface right now, but in considering the expenses of raising a family, childcare, healthcare is an issue. Has there been discussion or analysis or comparison with some of the health subsidies and programs out there or pending? Is there any component of this that says to that same family, “In addition to making it easier for you to have more children, here’s where the component would come in or here’s where that extra money could be applied to healthcare, to insurance?” Any discussion on that?

Romney

Well, obviously, in the case of those that have higher incomes, you know, in my plan, these phase out for people who are…have a combined income of up to $400,000, so this is not just a program for low-income families. This is a program for families all throughout the middle and somewhat suggest the upper-middle class because it goes to $40,000. So in many of those cases, these are people generally who are working, in the great majority of cases, and they’re getting healthcare from their employer. And so it really wouldn’t apply to the great majority of those who, I think, would be receiving this kind of support.

But with regards to the lower-income families, Medicaid will still be a program which is available to those that are poor and have either no income or very low income. And once eligibility for Medicaid would remain as it is today. So I don’t know that this program changes the healthcare dynamic, other than potentially providing additional income for those, perhaps right at the breaking point, where they might decide to purchase a health savings account or… I don’t mean purchase a health savings account, but establish a health savings account, or perhaps purchase some catastrophic care coverage. But that that’s a dynamic, frankly, I have not considered at this stage, to see how that might work at different income levels. Ross, do you have a better idea of that?

Douthat

The only thing I’d say is that you would, you know…. I mean, the reality is that income is fungible, right? And so if you’re providing a payment like this, the expectation would be, you know, it wouldn’t directly go to cover the cost of health insurance. Often the main challenge for people, especially in the working class is, sort of, an unexpected medical bill, or the need to have a procedure that your insurance doesn’t cover. And that’s where you get, you know, like these GoFundMe campaigns to someone gets in a car accident and, you know, you have people going on the internet trying to raise money from family and friends. You know, having a little more income in the mix there helps with, basically, unexpected medical bills, even if it isn’t, sort of, a dedicated set up for health insurance itself.

Larsen

Thank you. Senator, a couple of questions coming in. I may have missed this. You may have answered it fully. You did reference the fact that this plan is the result of some aggregate research and looking at different tried and true methods around the world. And you mentioned a couple of countries, European, I believe. Is there a model where this has been implemented in full or in part where it’s actually shown to make a difference on birth rate? Does that exist yet, that data point?

Romney

Canada is probably the best and the closest analog, obviously, given our proximity and cultural similarity. The facts and figures that I’ve seen from Canada relate to who goes into the workforce, and as I indicated with couples, it’s more likely that one of the members of the couple will decide to stay home to raise a small child. That’s a dynamic that changes. And with regards to single parents, it’s more likely that one of them or the single parent will go back to work.

But with regards to the birth rate, I don’t know that we’ve got sufficient data at this early stage to see a change there, but I’ll be happy to provide that to you. I’ll get that incentive along to you and you can pass along to your members. Have you seen anything on that, Ross?

Douthat

The person to read on this is a guy, who undoubtedly your staff reads, Senator, named Lyman Stone, who writes prodigiously on demographic issues. And he’s done a lot of work on how policies like this one have worked overseas. When I mentioned earlier that, you know, you get this, sort of, small, but real birth rate effect, it’s mostly his work on drawing on. So if you look at Eastern European countries, there’s variation in the kind of programs, but Hungary and Poland, especially, have done things like this, and there is, I think, especially in the Polish case, a not massive, but appreciable increase in the fertility rate. And again, Lyman Stone has, if you Google him, you will find a lot of writing on cross-country fertility comparisons and child benefits.

His best example is that in, I believe, the Republic of Georgia, from the former USSR, the patriarch of the Orthodox church there offered to baptize any…I’m not sure if it was any second or third child, but this was a great honor, and this did seem to lead to a small, but appreciable uptick. So it isn’t just financial inducements that work. You can also have baptisms from noted patriarchs of Orthodox religious faiths as well. That’ll be in the next Romney legislation.

Romney

Ross, I’ll volunteer for that one, Ross.

Douthat

That’s right. No, right, as a Bishop, that’s right. You can get personally…

Romney

Exactly.

Douthat

Getting myself in trouble here.

Larsen

So I want to touch on something that may go without saying, but one of the things I appreciate about the thought leadership that comes out of AEI, for instance, is you can find your perspective within data, and the argument for people having more children for a re-emphasis on the family, there are those who may view that from a church perspective, from a faith perspective, but can I ask each of you just to touch on the very real economic reasons to talk about a re-emphasis on the family, if nothing else, the social security system? Could you just give us a little primer on why this isn’t just a moral argument or an institutional argument or a societal argument for a re-emphasis on the families? Give it a bottom line, Senator?

Romney

Well, I begin by saying that, you know, I do believe that we are the greatest nation in the history of the Earth. Not just because we’re strong and big with the largest economy in the world, but because we are fundamentally a good people. We made enormous mistakes, but America is also a nation that has always acted from what it thought was the best thing that could be done for others and for ourselves. And so we’re a great nation and maintaining this nation and its greatness includes maintaining our population and having people marrying and having children, just as Ross indicated. That is the foundation of conservatism.

You know, you asked about, you know, what is conservatism? We look to solve real problems and to encourage people to have the kinds of freedoms so that they can solve real problems, but we do so in such a way that we don’t burden or make it harder down the road. So for instance, when our Democrat friends solve a problem, they spend a lot of money and then they raise taxes. And by raising taxes, they slow down the economy and end up hurting the very people they were trying to help. We’re a little smarter than that. I love what Ronald Reagan said. He said, “It’s not that liberals are ignorant. It’s just what they know is wrong.”

Our principles are focused on recognizing that free people, making choices in their best interest, will create the best outcome for all of us. And addressing challenges as they might exist is one of the things that we elect people to do. Look, I see my time, I have a hard stop at 5:50, 3:50 Utah time. I’ve got to leave you to go vote. But I do want to underscore, I think this is a very important topic because I believe that family formation and having children is at the foundation of our nation. Our nation is the hope of the Earth, in many respects, in my opinion, in the most important respects, and hope that you you’ll join me in this effort and we can improve…Ross, you and I can improve this bill. I like your suggestion, by the way, Ross, about work requirements coming to play down the road.

So with that, I’m going to have to leave you guys. I’ve got to run and vote. I can hear they’re ringing for me to be the last voter.

Douthat

They’re calling you.

Romney

So Ross, good to see you. Rick, thank you.

Larsen

Thank you. Thank you for taking this time. Ross, I’m gonna have you hang on for one closing statement. Senator, thank you and we’ll talk again.

Romney

Thank you. All the best.

Douthat

Take care, Senator.

Larsen

Ross, you want to put your final thoughts on this?

Douthat

The important thing is that Mitt Romney now knows how to pronounce my last name, which will be good news for all future generations of Douthats, no matter whether they receive a child benefit or not.

I mean, I would say two things, just in closing. The first is that there is absolutely a, sort of, inarguable negative economic consequences of declining population. And it’s not just, sort of, in the, sort of, simple terms of like how do we pay for social security, though that matters. It’s also just in terms of general dynamism, overall. A society that’s just getting older and older, and has fewer and fewer young people, is going to be resistant to change across multiple dimensions. It’s going to be less likely to innovate. It’s going to be less entrepreneurial. It’s going to become harder to start businesses, harder for new inventions to get traction. There’s all kinds of, sort of, emerging economic literature as the Western world becomes a low fertility society on what sort of…the lack of youth does to not just the cost of budgets, but growth rates.

And also on that front, you know, the Senator was talking about our competition with China. The reality is that this is a big weakness for China too. They have, you know, stark fertility declines driven, in their case, by the one child policy. And so you could say, basically, that this is a place where we can…instead of converging with China, we can diverge from them in a healthy way.

But I do want to end by stressing that, you know, as important as the economic arguments are, no one was ever convinced to have another child by being told, you know, it’s really important for GDP and national security. People make that decision for reasons that have to do with their personal finances and their values and their hopes and dreams and aspirations. And so with any kind of public policy proposal, you’re trying to find a way to make the policy fit with the basic good of wanting to bring another child into the world, and nothing is more important than that in these, kind of, issues.

Larsen

Ross, thank you. I appreciate your time, your thought. I have a feeling we might do this again. To the audience, there were a number of really good questions around the administration of this program and some other substantive questions. This will be available for review after the event. And we will also be publishing some analysis based on this conversation. And it will surely include some of the questions that we haven’t had time to get into. We are committed to continuing to analyze this policy suggestion. And hopefully too, conversations like this will only serve to refine it. That’s the great thing about our legislative process is it leads to refinement and improvement, if done properly. So Ross, thank you. We’ll be reaching out for your thoughts. Maybe we could publish something jointly, to put a bow on this conversation. And with that, we’ll thank everyone for your time and look forward to seeing you on our next virtual policy discussion.

Douthat

Thanks so much, Rick. It was a pleasure.

Larsen

Thank you.

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