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Family policy guru Josh McCabe on the ‘accident of history’ that turned American conservatives against family benefits

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with the Niskanen Center’s Josh McCabe on his interest in Canadian public policy, growing challenges to conservative policy orthodoxy and recent debates on the Right about the case for and against universal child benefits.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues, I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by Josh McCabe, who’s a scholar of family policy and household stability at the Niskanen Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Prior to joining there, Josh was a sociology professor and Assistant Dean for Social Sciences at Endicott College in Massachusetts. He’s a fascinating thinker and researcher in part because his work often involves a comparative analysis of Canada. In fact, Josh is a real Canadian-phile. I’m not familiar with any other international policy scholar with such a deep and sophisticated understanding of the Canadian policy landscape for the purposes of informing his or her work.

I’ve asked him to join me today to discuss his interest in Canada and how it influences his thinking, as well as emerging debates and trends in the world of us family policy and whether we’re seeing a generational change in this policy area, including among conservatives. Josh, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

JOSH McCABE: Thanks for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a question about you and your work. From my vantage point, you sit at an interesting intersection between sociology, economics, and politics. How would you describe your research and the lens that you apply?

JOSH McCABE: Yes, I’m trained as a comparative historical sociologist and my focus is largely on public policy. The thing that’s really motivated me is lots of questions about why the United States is different on all sorts of social policy. The classic question why is the U.S. the only country without a value-added tax or without an equalization block grant? Once you expand that question, there are a lot of interesting public policy issues you can explore, particularly if you’re looking at Canada.

SEAN SPEER: If I can ask another question about you and your work, you travel, Josh, in what might be called “reform conservative” circles and you’ve been cited by conservative opinion leaders as someone who’s doing important work to reconceptualize the center-right policy agenda to better reflect the needs and challenges of 21st-century life. How did you end up being appropriated by conservatives? Do you see yourself as part of a conservative intellectual tradition?

JOSH McCABE: Unlike most sociologists, I lean to the right. I’ve always leaned to the right. I’ve gone up through the ranks of the Institute for Humane Studies and other groups that have fostered that. I think in Canada, the Institute for Liberal Studies has done a lot of good work along these lines.

I chose sociology because I just thought it gave me the tools to answer these sorts of questions and it could allow me to explore these questions in a way that ironically isn’t an ideological threat to most folks within sociology.

If you’re looking at fiscal sociology, looking at taxes, most sociologists don’t have an understanding of taxes in other countries. It leaves a little bit more room to ask those questions and take them in a direction that I think is, if you’re a reform conservative, these are answers that you always thought were the case, you can find evidence that there’s the case for this and you can make that case to other folks in academia without being seen as an ideologue or some conservative threat.

SEAN SPEER: Now we have the answer. This is a case of self-protection in choosing Canada as a primary target for your comparative analysis.

Tell us a bit about the Niskanen Center. Like you, it has a bit of heterodoxy to its work. There are definitely some conservatives like you and Samuel Hammond who we’ve previously had on the show, but there are others who are associated with the organization that would probably reject being called conservative. What’s its raison d’etre? How would you describe the values and ideas and principles that guide the Niskanen Center’s work?

JOSH McCABE: Yes. I think the keyword we try to use is partisanship. This is the idea that I think everyone on the team, we come from very different backgrounds, I know there’s some Bernie Sanders guys, some Romney guys, but the idea of transpartisanship is that you come to an agreement on particular policies or policy directions or approaches from very different angles. It’s not a lowest common denominator bipartisanship like, “This is the best thing that works for us because we can agree,” it’s that we actually don’t potentially agree on why we think it’s a good policy. Some people think it’s pro-family, some people think it’s anti-poverty.

At the end of the day, you think the policy approach does both and you can come at it from those two different directions and get to the same policy conclusion. I think it’s really important where there’s probably less compromise at this game than where everyone is doing it for different reasons, but it ends up working.

SEAN SPEER: Okay. That leads me to the most important biographical question. How did you become a Canadian-phile? As I said in my introduction, I don’t know any American policy scholar who’s more attuned to policy developments and trends in Canada. What’s behind that, Josh?

JOSH McCABE: I think it stems from two issues where, in sociology, most folks will look at the United Kingdom, they’ll look at France, they’ll look at Germany as comparative case studies for the U.S., these are the big classics. Folks just tended to overlook Canada. What really struck me is how similar the U.S. and Canada are on all sorts of issues. You have the same characters and these policy circles, same sort of culture, same sort of issues they’re dealing with, talking in similar ways but you’re getting divergent policy outcomes. That really piqued my interest.

If you think that agrarian coalitions matter for building a welfare state, they look similar in the two countries. If you think that these things are obstacles to a particular policy, but they’re both present in the U.S. and Canada, it piques a lot of questions. I just started with that that these are really good comparative case studies, and everyone’s overlooking them. Much to their detriment, I’m going to go ahead and take advantage of that.

My first book looked at the politics of family allowances or child benefits, which is the idea that the U.S. had a non-refundable child tax credit, in Canada typically had a family allowance or a fully refundable child tax credit but you had the same coalition of anti-poverty liberals and pro-family conservatives working on and coming to very different conclusions. It wasn’t that American Republicans are bad, or they hate poor people, or things like that.

You have the same sort of characters in Canada just viewing it from a different perspective. Then the question is, why is that the case? You go back in history and you say, “Okay, maybe these things happened post-war period, or 50-75 years ago that are influencing the trajectories of these two countries that look the same even after the 1930s.”

That is useful for two reasons. One, I think it helps you push back against a lot of stereotypes about American conservatives that they’ve got these pathological issues or things like that.

Two, I think it shows that there is a conservative case for policies that the modern Republican Party isn’t currently pushing for. There might be very conservative reasons to push for it. There are good ways to do it and bad ways to do it. Canada is a model for a lot of the good ways to do some of these policies.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue, Josh. There are some questions I want to put to you about your scholarship on family and child benefits.

Let me just say for listeners, I had so many questions I wanted to put to Josh on those issues that we won’t cover in today’s conversation Josh’s thinking on Canada’s equalization program, but I would strongly recommend listeners to read his work on the subject.

It’s had a profound effect on how I think about equalization. Josh effectively argues that by having a single program with the purpose of broadly equalizing state capacity across sub-national jurisdictions, Canada has been able to establish a system of federalism that’s much more decentralized than the US, which at some level reflects a conservative idea or principle.

In effect, Josh has argued that if American conservatives want to achieve a greater degree of decentralization within the American federal system, they ought to support something like Canadian equalization. As I say, I’m afraid we won’t get to that today but it’s a really important line of argument and I do encourage people to read Josh’s work on the subject.

Okay. You’ve been a champion for something of a universal childcare benefit in the United States. While we’re far from mission accomplished, there was a temporary expansion of the child tax credit in the pandemic relief package. We’re starting to see politicians like Mitt Romney advance similar proposals. Before we look forward, Josh, let me ask you about what explains the lack of more dedicated support for families in the U.S.

I’ve been struck, for instance, that pro-family Republicans haven’t championed maternity benefits, which seems completely consistent with a worldview that grants primacy to families. I suppose that’s a long way of saying what’s behind the American conservative aversion to family benefits? Ostensibly, it’s not parsimonious. The U.S. government has run deficits for more than 20 consecutive years after all.

JOSH McCABE: The big difference it’s mostly as far as they can tell in an accident of history. Family allowances or child benefits are widely accepted in Canada today, but that wasn’t necessarily always the case. For a while, you had social workers who were against them, you had concerns about how the money would be spent.

You hear a lot of the echoes of the concerns of American policymakers today, but the big difference is Leonard Marsh and the Marsh report as a critical juncture in Canadian history opened up a new opportunity. Canada had looked like the U.S. with an emphasis on work relief and make-work programs until the Marsh report. A couple of other things shifted Canadian views toward that.

When you implement the policy, we talk about after the policy is implemented, the politics tend to change. We have these feedback effects that people make this seem normal. This is just a normal benefit and you can rationalize this benefit from multiple perspectives. In the U.S., that never happened for a bunch of reasons. FDR never seriously considered a family allowance. He doubled down on this work relief program and then ended up going more toward exemptions for family members, dependent exemptions.

In Canada, you see family allowances and later child tax credits as an income supplement rather than a form of welfare. It was the idea is that families are expensive and we want to support families, we want to be pro-work and pro-marriage, we want to make sure there are no worker or marriage penalties. Family allowance is the natural thing to do.

In the U.S., if you don’t have that family allowance and people don’t know how to think of it, they think of families in their role as taxpayers. We want to provide tax relief to families, we want to make sure tax relief is pro-work and pro-marriage, but if you have a progressive income tax system, then you tend to exclude the lowest income families technically because they’re not paying any of those federal taxes. It’s not some animosity toward the poor or anything like that. It’s just you’re perceiving families in different ways and the logic of what’s appropriate or inappropriate differs across the U.S. and Canada. We see some of that today as well.

SEAN SPEER: One of the intra-conservative arguments is that family allowances ought to come with work conditions. It’s an idea that’s inspired at least in part by the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s. While I support stringent work conditions for social assistance in the sense that social assistance’s purpose is to serve as a stabilizer for people as they transition back into employment, I don’t understand why the state should have a view on whether parents, including single parents, are working in order to receive a child benefit or a family allowance. Put differently, why would we sacrifice basic subsistence for children on insisting their parents work?

One thing I’ve wondered, Josh, is whether these demands for work conditions are sincere in that they reflect a genuine attempt to improve child benefit proposals, or if they’re poison pill to kill them. Help our listeners understand the thinking here and your views on this important debate.

JOSH McCABE: No, I think they’re sincere views. One of the issues has to do with its idea of what constitutes welfare or something else. In Canada, you have welfare, which is social assistance and it is an income support for the poorest families. Everyone is fine with work requirements. This is not something that is American in origin or is not just common to America.

You see it in Canada, you see it everywhere else, this idea that income support or social assistance should be subject to work requirements. The key difference is that in Canada, an income supplement is just seen as a supplement for families. It’s not going to support a family on their own, but it just gives them a small boost because they have children. In Canada, there’s no push to have work requirements for that because it seems inappropriate. It’s not welfare. It’s something totally distinct. I don’t think it makes sense to the average Canadian to say, “This should have a work requirement.”

The U.S. never had that legacy of an income supplement or family allowance. We had work requirements to welfare in the form of TANF here. You had dependent exemptions or non-refundable credits who are seen as tax relief, but we’ve never had that third category of just an income supplement for families.

When we tried to turn a non-refundable child tax credit into a fully refundable one, red lights went off in people’s heads that this is turning it into welfare because I don’t think most people had a way of understanding it other than tax relief or welfare. It’s becoming harder to do that because I think after 2017, there’s not a whole lot of tax relief left to provide to working-class families.

That’s because of the success of Reagan and the success of subsequent policy changes. We’re at a dead end. People are running out of options. If tax relief doesn’t work, what can we do? I think now we’re seeing more openness to allowing more low-income families to potentially have some sort of child benefit. I think it’s going to matter how we get there and under what circumstances.

SEAN SPEER: Another debate that underpins a lot of natalist policy discussions is differing understandings of what’s influencing family behaviour. If you think delayed family formation and declining fertility rates are a function of some cultural changes, then you may not be predisposed to a policy intervention.

If, however, you think that it’s at least in part a function of the financial cost associated with family formation and child-rearing, then you may be inclined to support a policy intervention, including large and generous child benefits. Help listeners understand the nature of the debate here and why you think a more expansive natalist policy is both normatively good, but also would have some effects on family formation and fertility.

JOSH McCABE: Yes, I think a lot of this has to do with the historical debate of material factors versus cultural factors. For a very long time, it was conservatives that thought cultural factors matter and liberals that think material factors matter. It’s always framed as an either-or question. I think we’ve seen a shift maybe in the last 10 or 20 years to say, maybe it’s a little bit of both. Culture does matter. These family norms do matter. There are different ways that material factors can support families or undermine them. The big one historically has been looking at marriage penalties in the tax code.

It’s this idea that you can promote marriage all day, but if people are going to lose government benefits because they get married all the cultural pressure in the world isn’t going to have people lose money to get married. That shifted a lot of the conservative focus onto these other potential material factors. It’s been, I think, slow going, but as the intellectual case has been made by a lot of the reform conservatives, you’ve seen a new openness to things like broader family allowances or child benefits, paid family leave, and other things that can be seen as genuinely pro-family conservative measures.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned earlier, Josh, that process matters a great deal in the American political system, which is set up for horse trading, compromise, and accommodation. As you noted, rarely will legislators get precisely what they want. But in a perfect world, help listeners understand what in your view would represent an optimal mix of policies that recognize the positive externalities of children and better support American families.

JOSH McCABE: Yes. I think the two big ones, and this is where I take my cue from Canada, is probably some kind of child benefit. This idea that people like kids, they want to have lots of kids, but they’re very expensive. I have two and I spend a lot of money on them. It helps that if we had some kind of child benefit, it would make it more affordable to have kids.

It can also help to address concerns about income volatility. If you lose your job, if you go through a transition where you might be unemployed, and this is relatively common for a lot of people who work, how are you going to work that out when you have children? I think the big benefit of family allowances is they potentially increase family stability. If there’s less stress in the family, there’s less income volatility, it just makes it easier to support your family.

I think the second big one is paid family leave. This idea that having children is special, that we want to support parents when they have children, whether it’s birth or adoption, and spend time with those children bonding, and that this is intrinsically poignant. I know a lot of people make the case for it in terms of supporting working mothers or things like that.

I think a lot of conservatives say, “No, family is just important.” You don’t need a workforce argument to have a family leave, you just need to say that we want to make sure that parents have time to bond with newborns, they have time to take care of their family, whether sick child, whether it’s a sick parent and paid family leave is a good way of doing that. I think most of the proposals now such as the Democrats’ Family Act see it as a feminist approach. In a lot of cases, if you make a conservative case for that, you can gain a lot of traction, it’s just got to be done in a way that resonates with folks who are going to have to vote on this.

SEAN SPEER: Just in parentheses, the absence of paid family leave in the United States also strikes me as a major source of inequity. Working mothers in highly professionalized settings often have some form of employer-provided benefit. My wife, for instance, who’s a lawyer in New York City had approximately five months of full-paid leave which is obviously less generous than in Canada but competitive in the United States.

When you contrast that with working mothers in low-skilled occupations who have essentially no leave, one can’t help but think that there are lasting inequities in child development when those instances mothers are being forced to essentially go back to work immediately after giving birth. One hopes that this is an area of policy where we see some progress, especially in the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion rights.

Let me close that parenthesis because I want to ask you about debates that are occurring within the Right on some of these issues. It seems to me, Josh, that the most interesting debates about natalism aren’t between Left and Right, it’s between, say, AEI’s Scott Winship and American Compass’ Oren Cass on one hand, and you and Sam Hammond on the other hand. Let me ask a two-part question.

First, is the intra-debate about government supporting families as a sign that the American intellectual Right is at least evolving after years of being stuck in a 1980s set of policy assumptions, and second, what does it say at a time when people are feeling pretty down about conservative politics, about the vitality of American conservative intellectual life? Is there in other words more happening below the surface than people are necessarily seeing on cable news or social media?

JOSH McCABE: No, I think you’re absolutely right. There is more happening below the surface that I think the general public misses out on because these are boundaries within the coalition that are evolving, that are changing, that aren’t always made public, but these conversations are happening behind the scenes. I think it’s again, similar to Canada where historically, I remember reading about child benefits under Mulroney, and you’ve got all these conservatives working together for very different reasons.

You’ve got the fiscal conservatives who want to make these reforms because they’re trying to get the deficit down, to the family caucus, social conservatives who are looking to support the family, and you’ve got anti-tax conservatives who want to make sure that we’re not raising taxes to do any of this. You see something similar in the U.S. I think it’s it’s always been there.

Most people don’t realize the Family Research Council and the Christian coalition were integral in the introduction of the Child Tax Credit. They have been a bit more focused on cultural issues for some of the reasons I talked about before, but rather than saying they don’t understand their interests, or they have no interest in economic issues. I think as they’ve learned more about economic issues, they’ve been really open to it, and it fits in well with their existing worldview. It’s not a matter of they have to change their entire worldview to take these factors into consideration. I think a lot of conservative intellectuals have said, “Hey, this makes sense. This is a logical conclusion. If we do this, it’s totally consistent with our principles.” That has been effective and that’s really resonated with them. We’re starting to see some of the payoffs from that now.

SEAN SPEER: A common theme on this podcast is a generational change in the world of conservative ideas and politics and the extent to which that may disrupt long-standing thinking about public policy and governance. Is it your view that younger conservative intellectuals and even politicians are more responsive to your thinking about family policy and natalist policy? If so, is there reason to think that this policy agenda may start to find political expression as younger politicians run for president or assume leadership in Congress or at the state level?

JOSH McCABE: I think that’s right. A lot of it, if you think about theories of change, there are people changing their minds over time and then there’s just the idea of cohort replacement. As people retire, younger people with slightly different views take their place and you start to get new ideas that sooner or later are going to bubble up and they’re going to become dominant views. As a lot of people have pointed out, we tend to have a much older set of policymakers.

If you look at Canadian leaders or British leaders, they’re young guys in skinny ties versus here, it’s folks in their 70s or 80s, a lot more traditional, that once you get that cohort replacement, you’re going to see change happen relatively quickly.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve just introduced new lexicon to the podcast, Josh. In Canada, they are typically referred to as “boys in short pants,” not boys in skinny ties.

We talked earlier about your comparative work including on Canada. Let me ask a political economy question that follows up from that. In Canada, for various reasons, relying on arguments that a specific policy has been enacted in the United States and is showing some success may not be a really strong or salient argument. I think, for instance, of health-care policy where the U.S. is typically held up as a contradistinction and as an impediment to reform as opposed to a model that we ought to implement. In your own work, do you find that drawing on Canadian case studies finds a responsive audience among American policymakers, or is it something that they just don’t care about?

JOSH McCABE: No, I think it’s been pretty effective so far. The key thing is that there’s the Canada of progressives’ imaginations or American progressives’ imaginations, which I don’t think bears much resemblance to the Canadian reality. I’ve always told people that the dream of American conservatism is alive in Canada.

When you can point to these cases where in Canadian history, you’ve got conservative policymakers making these decisions for conservative reasons and having these really good effects people then listen, they don’t think it’s necessarily just a bunch of far-left policies that our far-left country does that. These are authentically conservative policies coming from authentically conservative people that we just didn’t know about because Americans don’t have much knowledge of Canada.

SEAN SPEER: In that vein, I’ve always thought that Stephen Harper’s prime ministership is an underrated case study for American conservative intellectuals in terms of advancing the case for their reform conservative vision and agenda. His conservatism is rock solid, including on issues that would have reached the attention of American policymakers, such as his foreign policy positions on Israel and other issues. To your point, there may be upside there in terms of pointing to a successful example of conservative governance, particularly in this moment of intellectual and political flux occurring within the American right.

You’ve been so generous with your time Josh, I just have one final question. You’d spend a lot of time talking about your interest and extraordinary knowledge of Canadian policymaking in Canadian politics. Have you visited the country before? If so, what’s your favorite place?

JOSH McCABE: I have visited a couple of times. I was born and raised in Massachusetts. It’s a rite of passage for all 18-year-old Massachusetts kids to drive up to Montreal so we can have our first drink ever. I’ve also been back a couple of times to, I think, Toronto for a couple of conferences. I almost got a job at the University of Toronto at one point so that would have completed things. I think my favourite thing is just walking around the neighborhoods of Toronto. There’s a particular urbanism there that I really appreciate.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it seems to me, that’s a great way to wrap up this conversation. We’ll have to find a way, not just to get you back on the podcast, Josh, but to Canada at some point in the coming months.

Josh McCabe, scholar of family policy at household stability at the Niskanen Center, I want to thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues to share your insights and knowledge about Canadian policy-making and some of the big policy debates and developments occurring within the United States. Thank you so much.

JOSH McCABE: Thanks, Sean. It’s been an honour.