Conservatives have long held the institution of the family in the highest esteem. But like many American institutions today, the American family could use some conserving: Marriage rates are at historic lows, parents routinely say they have fewer children than they want and working parents find raising kids more and more costly.

Our public policies should promote the family rather than hurt it, and we can start by giving parents the power to raise their children as they see fit.

Many parents say they would prefer to stay home with their young children but simply can’t afford it. And indeed our tax laws explicitly promote both commercial day care and two-income households. But those are choices that should belong to families, not Washington. It’s time for a new approach that gives families the choice of how to raise their kids.

Start with the problem. Washington’s policies over the last few decades have contributed to the brittle condition of the American family. Our tax and trade policy has rewarded outsourcing, offshoring and labor arbitrage.

Consequently, wages have stagnated even as the cost of housing and health care — both vital for families — has exploded. The days when a working-class family could survive on the paycheck of one parent are long gone. In today’s economy, Mom and Dad often both feel compelled to enter the workforce — and stay there — in order to have and raise a family.

These economic imperatives run counter to what many families say they want. Most American families, especially those in the working and middle classes, consistently say that children are better off when one parent stays at home to care for them. And many of these same families wish that was possible for them.

Their view is that the supervision of a child care provider is no substitute for the love and attention that a parent can uniquely bestow upon his or her children. But too often, parents simply cannot afford to reduce hours at work to provide at-home parental care. And current law does frustratingly little to help make such preferences a reality.

Democrats, for their part, try to make family life more affordable by pushing both parents into the full-time workforce while subsidizing commercial child care. Not surprisingly, this is the family policy of choice for the Democrats’ upper-income, college-educated voters. And many existing federal policies in fact require both parents to be in the workforce to receive child care benefits. These policies, like the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, also require children to be enrolled in commercial child care.

But no family should be forced into a particular child care arrangement by the government. And no parent should be treated worse by the tax code for choosing to do the work of raising kids at home. Instead, federal policy should let families decide and respect the range of child-rearing preferences held by American families.

That is why I’m proposing a new approach, a Parent Tax Credit — one of the largest tax cuts for working families in American history.

The Parent Tax Credit is a fully refundable per-parent tax credit available to households with children under the age of 13. The credit has an annual value of $6,000 for single parents and $12,000 for married parents and would be delivered to eligible families through automatic, monthly advances directly into the same bank accounts where they receive their federal tax refunds.

The Parent Tax Credit rewards work. Unlike other proposals that send parents no strings-attached-cash, families must work to receive the Parent Tax Credit and work consistently. To qualify for the credit, households must report prior-year earnings equal to or greater than income from an average of 20 hours per week of work at the federal minimum wage. This is not welfare.

The Parent Tax Credit rewards marriage. Rather than merely doubling the earnings threshold to ensure there is no marriage penalty, the credit maintains the same income requirements for married parents. That means an explicit marriage bonus of 100%, which guarantees that married parents are not penalized if one parent chooses to stay home to care for their children. In fact, the Parent Tax Credit is meant to help give parents precisely this choice.

It is long past time for conservatives’ policy priorities to match their rhetoric. Conservatives have bemoaned the travails of the American family for years. Now it’s time to do something about it. By rewarding parenthood, marriage and work, the Parent Tax Credit is a start.

Republican Josh Hawley represents Missouri in the United States Senate.

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