Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Angela Sailor is vice president of the Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation. Carolyn Bolton is a senior content specialist and former newspaper reporter.

Whatever you believe about Christmas, consider Mary and Joseph: they take on life-and-death situations and, together, raise an extraordinary son. Moms and dads in 2020, worldwide, have had a very rough year, too.

This season, let’s rebuild relationships and work to preserve our heritage of a free society where we voluntarily help one another’s families.

Extended family and civil society — generations working hand in hand — can get us through.

Unfortunately, two-parent families in America are in trouble, and kids suffer the results. More than 1 in 3 kids are raised without both parents in the home. For Black, non-Hispanic kids, that number is 2 in 3.

“This form of family inequality leaves many working-class and poor children ‘doubly disadvantaged,’” University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox said. They have “less money and an absent parent.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. fertility rate has been declining. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports another 1 percent decline in 2019. That’s a total fertility rate of 1.7 births per mother, “another record low for the nation.”

Having kids tends to track economic stability. Young people after the Great Recession of 2008 often struggled to afford the lifestyles they thought they needed for children. The extreme conditions of 2020 are likely to see a lot more decisions to put kids on hold.

And 2020 had lockdowns. Interaction with extended family and the rest of civil society went way down. But one of the best defenses against loneliness, mental illness and financial instability is the resilience we build when surrounded by loving family members and neighbors.

If quarantines have taught us anything, it’s to cherish what a healthy family can share. A family is often its own safety net.

In 2021, we have new opportunities to support families in our everyday lives and in local, state and federal policy.

Organizations like Communio help churches develop marriage ministries tailored to their congregations and communities. In partnership with more than 50 churches and organizations in Jacksonville, Florida, Communio reduced the divorce rate by 24 percent over three years.

Policies that subsidize contraception and abortion give incentives to keep kids away. In contrast, accommodating women and men who become parents gives incentives for healthy families. Flex time and paid leave can be good choices for companies to retain their employees.

At the federal level, the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program helps colleges offer vouchers to college student-parents so that they can afford child care and stay in school. This does not have to be just a federal program — or a government program at all. A small amount of philanthropy here can go a long way.

The conversation about student loan reform also should include early-career parents. Should pregnant women and their husbands be allowed to defer their student loans until they have no children under the age of kindergarten? That breathing room could enable many more graduates to pay their debts as they build their families.

Parents and grandparents could be given larger contribution limits on flexible spending accounts for child care. The same limits could be created for health savings accounts.

Wilcox identifies additional ways to support strong families. Ending the “marriage penalty” in programs for the poor could save couples up to 32 percent of their annual income when they get married.

Anything that strengthens the employee side of the job market will tend to strengthen families — so rebalancing away from four-year liberal arts degrees into career and technical education makes sense. Most adults do not get a college degree, and we should not discount the dignity of any meaningful labor that supports a family.

Wilcox also recommends a civil society campaign to strengthen marriage. People who follow the “success sequence” have much better lives. About 97 percent of people who follow the order of education, work, marriage then parenthood are not going poor. Their kids, one day, will thank them for it.

When communities support the success sequence, teach it, preach it and provide incentives for strong families with a strong job market, that is what we’ll get. It’s a great goal for 2021.