Candidates on both sides of the political divide have leaned into their parental bona fides this year to appeal to voters, and to women voters in particular.
Democratic congressional candidate Katie Darling of Louisiana featured her labor and birth in a now-viral campaign ad where she invoked motherhood as she talked about education, climate change and abortion. Republican senate candidate Katie Britt of Alabama, who would be the only Republican woman senator with school-age children, declared this the “Year of the Parent” during a recent national radio talk show appearance, praising parent involvement in issues like education and crime.
But what would truly make 2023 the Year of the Parent? If political leaders prioritized the needs of parents and their children, what would those promises – and policies – look like?
The parenthood rhetoric Democrats and Republicans use to appeal to voters often differs, but at heart the strategy is the same: it’s less about communicating policy goals and more about “messaging for (voter) mobilization,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Women voters tend to be a campaign priority. Women have outnumbered and outvoted men in every national election since the 1980s. And parents of younger children may be feeling particularly determined to hit the ballot box this year: Nearly 6 in 10 registered voters who are parents of K-12 students said they were more motivated to vote in 2022 than in past midterm elections, according to one recent national poll.
Issues like education and abortion matter deeply to voters. But, said Dittmar, “when you talk about the issues that are top of mind for voters in this cycle, it’s economic issues and inflation.” The top issue for voters across the political spectrum this election cycle is the economy, according to Pew Research Center. It’s No. 1 for parents as well, according to a smaller poll from the progressive National Parents Union.
For parents, Dittmar said, the economy directly impacts their ability to care for their kids.
But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers don’t have to guess how some economic policies might benefit families. There’s solid data on that.
Child poverty plummets
In 2021, the U.S. child poverty rate plummeted to a record low of 5%, from about 10% the year before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.
Fueling that drop in child poverty was the expanded child tax credit, a federal program that provided monthly payments to about 6 in 10 U.S. households with children during the latter half of 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. About 35 million families were eligible to receive, each month, up to $300 for each child under age 6 and up to $250 for each child age 6-17.
Parents reported spending their child tax credit payments most often on food, utilities, rent, child care and school expenses, according to the Census Bureau.
That child tax credit lifted nearly 3 million children out of poverty, according to a report from the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. Poverty rates for Black and Latino children dropped most sharply, though their poverty rates are still disproportionately higher than those of their white and Asian counterparts.
The rate of children without health insurance in the United States also improved in 2021, falling to 5%, according to Census Bureau data.
During the pandemic, Congress passed several insurance-related relief measures, including increasing state Medicaid funding, reducing the cost of purchasing health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, and expanding access to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
These improvements may be short-lived. The expanded child tax credit was a temporary pandemic relief measure that expired in early 2022. And despite pandemic-era health insurance efforts, about 4 million U.S. children are still uninsured.
Unless policymakers take action to implement more permanent child tax credit, “the progress of 2021 likely will be undone, and child poverty rates will climb back up,” noted the Annie E. Casey Foundation report.
Dems v. GOP
Democrats and Republicans aren’t far apart when it comes to how well they think the federal government supports parents. About 4 in 10 Republicans and about half of Democrats say the federal government does too little to support parents, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center report.
But they differ widely on how they think federal government should support parents.
Democrats were more likely to say the government should offer social support programs like universal child care and paid family leave, according to the report, while Republicans were more likely to champion school choice and parental authority over the topics taught in schools.
Just 5% of Democrats and 6% of Republicans mentioned child tax credits.
Specific policies aimed at lifting families out of poverty don’t tend to make for top-line messaging with candidates when they’re appealing to parents, said Dittmar.
On the Republican side in this cycle, parent-related messaging tends to revolve around education, said Dittmar.
Republican candidates have praised parents for getting involved in local school debates over curriculum and parental choice. Republican parents are far more likely than Democrats to say parents have too little influence on school curriculum, according to an October 2022 Pew Research Center report.
In Virginia last year, Republican and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin made education and parents’ rights to determine what their children learn in school the central plank of his campaign for governor. He narrowly beat Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe.
Some Republican candidates have tried drumming up support among parents by playing on fears over divisive educational issues like critical race theory, school masking mandates and LGBTQ+ representation.
For Democrats, “there’s not as much universality in how they’re using their parental status to appeal to voters,” said Dittmar.
But in general, she said, Democratic candidates will often talk about threats to public education and who gets to control school curricula, as well as concerns over healthcare and abortion access.
Darling’s campaign ad specifically addresses abortion access in Louisiana, showing footage of her being wheeled to the hospital delivery room as she says in a voiceover, “We should be putting pregnant women at ease, not putting their lives at risk.”
Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who often draws on her experience as a single parent when talking about campaign issues, released a campaign ad in August in which she spoke about getting an abortion after being raped at age 17.
“There is an interesting confluence of appeals to (Democratic-leaning) parents around issues of choice,” said Dittmar. “Those who have kids…understand why some mothers are seeking out abortions, because of the demand parenthood places on finances and time.”
Parenthood used to be seen as a political liability, particularly for women candidates. That began to change a couple of decades ago, said Dittmar, as more women began running for office and cultural attitudes toward motherhood began to change.
“Now, in the last few election cycles, candidates using motherhood as an electoral asset has been more prominent,” she said.
And yet appeals to parents often remain focused on middle-class and white parents, because of race and class-based barriers to political candidacy and to voting. Parent voters may be less likely to see candidates talking about concrete policy changes like child tax credits or health insurance improvements.
“If we had more representative candidate pool and office holders, maybe more of those issues would be addressed,” said Dittmar. “There isn’t one message representing what mothers think or prioritize.”