For Catholics, Trump’s and Clinton’s family policies leave much to be desired

Both candidates’ proposals seem at odds with Catholic teaching in various ways.

In this election season, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed significant policies to help parents. Their proposals share two main features: (1) enhanced maternity or family leave mandated by federal regulations and subsidized by federal spending, and (2) assistance with educational and other childcare expenses via federal spending, tax relief, or both. 

For the Catholic citizen, these proposals have significant promise to provide at least some appropriate relief to working parents. Nonetheless, both candidates’ proposals seem at odds with Catholic teaching in various ways.

In evaluating these family policies, it is well to recall two fundamental and highly relevant principles: the duty of the parent to the child, and the duty of the broader community to assist the parent in performing this duty. As to the parental duty, the Catholic Church teaches that God directly entrusts every child to the custody, care, and education of his mother and father. As Pope Pius XI explained, “God directly communicates to the family, in the natural order, fecundity, which is the principle of life, and hence also the principle of education to life.” Parents thus have a sacred trust: an inalienable duty and right to raise and educate their offspring. 

For most women and men, this parental enterprise represents at once the most joyous and most arduous duties of their lives. From conception, our children place extraordinary demands on our bodies, our hearts, our money, and especially our time.  

Parental resources are always limited. Multitasking has its limits, and bilocation is impossible. None of the saints reported to have this gift were parents.

Choices must be made. The very time and energy spent in meeting the material needs of the household require a sacrifice of the time and energy that might be spent on the family’s more noble, more central task—the care and education of children.  

This parental duty is not only the parent’s concern. The arduous parental enterprise is critical to the larger common good. To survive, the community needs new members. Parents provide these new members. They raise and educate not just new adults, but new citizens. Therefore social justice requires that the community support the parental enterprise. 

First and foremost, social justice requires that marriage be preserved, protected, and honored as the chief means to unite parents in their joint performance of their duty. Marriage thus helps secure to the child the fundamental right to the custody, care, and education of both his mother and his father. 

Moreover, societies can assist the parental enterprise in many other ways. Most notably, the community has established and supported schools, staffed by paid third parties, whose job is to assist parents in education. In addition, government has offered a variety of benefits to families through regulations, tax breaks, and governmental spending.

During this presidential campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed federal policies to help parents, via mandated and paid family leave and subsidized child care and education. As to family leave, Clinton’s plan would mandate 12 weeks of paid parental leave subsidized by increased taxation on the wealthy. Trump’s plan would provide for six weeks of paid leave, to be subsidized by the unemployment insurance system. As to childcare and education, Clinton’s plan would use both direct federal spending and tax relief both to pay for third-party childcare fees and supplement the salaries of early-childhood educators. Trump proposes, instead, to use tax exemptions, deductions, and rebates to enable parents to more easily pay for childcare and after-school programs. Most notably, Trump’s plan, unlike Clinton’s, provides relief to parents who, as to childcare, choose to forego the income provided by participating in markets and instead stay home and care for their children personally.

Despite these differences, both candidates’ plans provide obvious benefits to parents. Mandated and subsidized family leave gives working parents a short time both to recover from childbirth and to care for a newborn—that is, to engage in some measure of personal childcare—but without significantly impairing their participation in acquisition by labor, commerce, etc. Subsidized childcare and education can significantly ease the burdens on parents’ time and money.

In addition, the proposals, for the most part, set forth an equitable basis for distributing the costs of this parental assistance. Since the parental enterprise serves the common good, it makes sense that the broader community should bear the burden of supporting it. Therefore, for instance, it would not seem just to place the burden of assisting a parent primarily or even exclusively on the parent’s employer. Rather, the whole community should provide the assistance, whether by a broad system of mandated unemployment insurance, tax relief, or governmental spending.

Still, in some critical respects, both Trump’s and Clinton’s policies would seem to run afoul of principles of Catholic teaching—and social justice in particular. To mandate paid maternity leave, whether for six weeks (Trump) or 12 (Clinton), seems inconsistent with principles of both subsidiarity and equity.  A one-size-fits-all mandate, imposed on businesses of all sizes, in all sectors, and in all regions, seems recklessly indifferent to the need to allow smaller communities, whether state or local, whether public and private, to adopt measures more suited to their local needs and conditions. Further, these mandates would involve a variety of administrative and other expenses on businesses—burdens that will effectively disadvantage smaller businesses.

Moreover, this mandate would place direct and disproportionate burdens on the parents’ coworkers. Such burdens would prompt resentments that would be understandable if not justifiable. Why, after all, should anyone be forced to become an adjunct to someone else’s family? If indeed the whole community has an interest in the flourishing of the child, why should this burden fall so peculiarly on a parent’s immediate co-workers?

The candidates’ childcare proposals seem even more problematic, but in different respects. Trump’s proposal, by relying on tax deductions and rebates, would seem neglectful of the needs of the poor. Although such rebates will help those who pay insufficient tax to benefit from deductions, such rebates require the poor to pay up front for the childcare and/or to forego employment by staying at home, and then wait until the end of the tax year to receive the rebate. Poorer parents frequently need much more timely assistance. Clinton’s plan, in contrast, provides a speedier remedy via direct governmental spending.

But in another respect, Clinton’s plan seems worse: it would undermine the authority of all parents, and especially poor parents, to use their judgment in determining how to raise their children.  Trump’s plan would make the deductions and rebates available to all parents, including those staying at home or otherwise foregoing the labor market in favor of caring for their own children. But Clinton’s plan would support only one choice: the use of third-party childcare at governmentally-sanctioned facilities. To use general taxation to support only one kind of parental choice would seem radically inconsistent with principles of subsidiarity and parental authority. Such an approach would impose substantial economic pressures—pressures to which poorer parents are most susceptible.

Moreover, the peculiar choice privileged by Clinton’s plan would seem, at the very least, unfriendly to Catholic teaching. Pressuring parents to rely on third-party caretakers both increases the separation of parents from children and wrongly prioritizes parental acquisitive activities over parental educational ones. It would be better, if possible, for children to stay closer to their own parents. And it would be nobler for parents to engage in the education of children rather than engage in the subordinate activity of commerce. 

Furthermore, these third-party facilities to which parents are to send their children will probably be secular and irreligious. Under current interpretations of our Constitution, the federal government would be forbidden to provide direct monetary support to any Catholic or religious school. But parents have the most solemn duty to raise their children to know, love, and serve God. They should not be pressured to surrender their children to early-childhood education that is irreligious.

Therefore, in different and varying degrees, the family policies proposed by the two major presidential candidates do not seem consistent with Catholic teaching. Whether by inequitable distribution of burdens, neglect of the needs of the poor, or disregard for the right of parents to direct the care and education of their children—the proposals of both Trump and Clinton are unworthy of the Catholic citizen’s support. 

Regardless of the results of the election, however, family policy will almost certainly remain on the nation’s political agenda. Catholic citizens should be prepared to consider all proposals with discernment and critical evaluation—and even better, to set forth new proposals that are consistent with the rights of parents and the broader common good. 

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About David R. Upham 3 Articles
David R. Upham is a lawyer in Texas and Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas.