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Democratic Dads Think It’s Gotten Easier To Raise Kids

Politics

GettyImages 1204906959 16x9 1 A boy looks on as his father fills in his ballot

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There’s nothing like bringing a baby onto the House floor to get the country’s attention. Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez went viral in early January when he showed up to vote for the new House speaker wearing his son Hodge strapped to his chest in a baby carrier. Later that month, Gomez and other Democratic fathers of young kids tried to turn that viral moment into a new political interest group, forming a congressional “Dads Caucus” to draw attention to policies that affect parents, like paid family leave and child tax credits. 

The idea that dads could be effective spokespeople for the tribulations of modern parents is appealing to politicians and advocates who want more government support for working families. After all, men at high levels of power tend to get bonus points in the workplace for becoming a parent, while women in similar positions are penalized. And fathers in heterosexual relationships, who have long lagged behind mothers in time and energy spent on child rearing, only started to catch up a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there’s a pretty obvious reason why Gomez’s “Dads Caucus” isn’t bipartisan — and isn’t likely to draw Republican support anytime soon. Like mothers, fathers are a large and diverse demographic group with competing views of what families need and what society owes them. Divisions over how families should be structured and the kinds of support they should receive remain some of the most powerful in American politics today. In fact, there are deep disagreements among Americans about how to even define parents’ issues. According to two surveys with large samples of parents, there’s less consensus among Democrats about some key issues facing parents than among Republicans. Democratic dads, it turns out, look a lot more like Republican moms and dads on issues like child benefits and parental leave. So if anything, the Dads Caucus’s audience isn’t dads — it’s Democratic moms.

What even is a “parents’ issue”? If you ask Democratic lawmakers, financial support for parents like paid parental leave and subsidized child care will rise to the top of the list. Talk to Republicans, and you’ll likely hear more about increasing parental oversight in education. But sussing out differences in perspective between parents and non-parents — not to mention mothers and fathers — is harder to do. According to a survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life last summer, parents and non-parents mostly look very similar when it comes to the issues they prioritize, with one exception — parents were substantially more likely than non-parents to say that funding for public schools is a critical issue for them personally (34 percent vs. 24 percent, respectively). 

Parents mostly agree that raising children today is expensive, according to the conservative Institute for Family Studies, which conducted a poll with YouGov and the right-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center on issues that affect families last fall. The survey found that the vast majority (84 percent) of parents think the cost of living makes it hard to have kids, with relatively few differences between moms and dads. But there were much bigger differences between — and among — mothers and fathers about what the government can and should be doing to help parents and families thrive, with Democratic moms standing out from all the other groups in their support for greater government support for families.

For example, the IFS survey found that parents are already fairly divided about whether people should refrain from having kids if they can’t afford to raise them without government assistance: 56 percent of parents agree, while 44 percent disagree. Some of the biggest divisions on this question were between mothers and fathers. More than 60 percent of Democratic and GOP-affiliated dads agreed that people should not have kids if they can’t afford to raise them without government help, compared to less than half of Democratic moms and a smaller majority of Republican moms. Mothers — particularly Democratic moms — were also substantially likelier than dads to say that families today have it harder than families in the 1970s, and Democratic moms were substantially likelier than any other group to say that all families should be eligible for a full child benefit, regardless of work status.

Democratic dads and moms aren’t on the same page

Share of mothers and fathers by party affiliation who agreed and disagreed with the following answers to each question.

People shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to raise them without government assistance.
Dem dads Dem moms GOP dads GOP moms
Agree 62% 46% 63% 55%
Disagree 39% 54% 37% 44%
There are different ways to determine how a family might be eligible for a child benefit. Which of the following comes closest to your view?
Dem dads Dem moms GOP dads GOP moms
All families should be eligible for a full child benefit, regardless of their work status 44% 67% 50% 46%
Only families with a worker present should be eligible for a child benefit 33% 18% 24% 43%
Only parents that owe federal income taxes at the end of the year should receive a child benefit 23% 15% 26% 11%
Do you think families today have it easier or harder compared to families in the 1970s?
Dem dads Dem moms GOP dads GOP moms
Harder 32% 59% 52% 53%
Easier 48% 31% 35% 33%
About the same 21% 10% 14% 14%

Based on a survey conducted Oct. 20-Nov. 3, 2022, among 2,557 American adults, including an oversample of parents with children under age 18.

Source: Institute for Family Studies/YouGov/Ethics and Public Policy Center

Some of the differences between Democratic dads and moms are shockingly large — particularly considering that there aren’t similar divides between Republican mothers and fathers. Less than half of Democratic dads think that all families should be eligible for a child benefit — rather than limiting a child benefit to families with at least one working parent — compared to more than two-thirds of Democratic moms. And Democratic dads are slightly more likely than Republican dads to say that families have it easier today than they did in the 1970s — while majorities of GOP dads, GOP moms, and Democratic moms say families today have it harder.

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Democratic moms stand out even on issues that have come to seem like standbys for progressive politicians, like federally provided paid parental leave. While majorities of all parents support a new program that would establish six weeks of paid parental leave for new mothers and three weeks of paid leave for fathers and adoptive parents, a majority (58 percent) of Democratic moms strongly support that parental leave program, compared to 42 percent of Democratic dads, 39 percent of Republican moms and 31 percent of GOP dads.

Underneath these policy differences are some serious cultural divides about men’s and women’s roles in society. The AEI survey asked respondents if American society today generally treats women better than men, both equally, or men better than women, and it found big differences between moms and dads: 67 percent of moms said that society treats men better, compared to only 44 percent of dads. A similar share (40 percent) of dads said that society treats men and women equally. Likewise, the IFS survey found that a slim majority (51 percent) of dads think the feminist movement has done more harm than good, compared to only 40 percent of moms. Divisions about the role of the feminist movement were particularly pronounced among Democrats: 43 percent of Democratic dads agreed that the feminist movement has done more harm than good, compared to only 26 percent of Democratic moms.

These findings underscore the problem for Democrats hoping to turn “dad issues” into a winning issue for men in their base. The IFS survey suggests that dads on the left are less likely than ideologically similar moms to prioritize parents’ issues that progressives have embraced in the past few years, like child tax credits and family leave, perhaps because they may not think that families today have it all that much harder than families did in the past.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that stunts like Gomez’s can’t have political benefits. After all, the data show that Democratic moms care about these issues — and they might be more likely to support men who flaunt their working dadness than try to downplay it. But if the goal of the Dad’s Caucus is to turn dads on to broader progressive goals for working families, they’ll need to do a lot more than bring their kids to work.

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