America's war on children

Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West have written a call to arms for American parents. But their big-tent strategy leaves us stranded at the front.


Joan Walsh
April 23, 1998 11:37PM (UTC)

Why do American parents put up with the sorriest family support of
any Western industrial nation -- no paid parental leave, guaranteed child
care or health insurance; no family allowance; none of the programs common
in other countries? And what if they stopped putting up with it and formed
a 62 million-strong parents' movement to demand more support for
child rearing? That's the premise of Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West's
new book, "The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered
Moms and Dads." A parents' voting bloc, West and Hewlett contend, could span
the fault lines of American politics -- race, class, gender, geography --
and win programs that would ease the strains on families today.

"The War Against Parents" is a nonpartisan jeremiad
intended to break the ideological stalemate that West and Hewlett believe
has blocked pro-family reform for three decades. There's something for
everyone here, because they're trying to craft a big-tent family agenda.
Being good liberals, they blame the usual suspects for the suffering of the
American family: corporate downsizing, declining wages and government
cutbacks, all of which they believe have eroded the social fabric that used
to support families. But they also lend a sympathetic ear to conservative
complaints -- about feminists who choose careers over motherhood and, later,
sperm donors over fathers, bureaucrats who have built a foster care empire
on exaggerated claims of child abuse, the cynical media that depicts
parents as either oafs or monsters.

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Theirs is a dark, dysfunctional America of selfish feminists and besieged working-class moms, evil corporate moguls and heroic downsized dads, television constantly beaming
anti-parent propaganda into unhappy homes across the land -- Beavis telling
Butt-head, "Your mother is a slut" -- and neglected children everywhere. But the something-for-everybody solution they craft to address these problems is muddled, self-contradictory and ultimately unconvincing.

First, a confession: These are my people -- good, left-leaning
liberals with a contrarian, communitarian streak -- and my outsized
disappointment with the book reflects a tribal frustration at the limits of
contemporary liberalism to achieve crucial social reform. Liberalism
faltered when it became a laundry list of gripes, with little to inspire
voters to action. West and Hewlett's answer is to add conservative gripes,
resulting in a longer list of grievances and requiring a sweeping social
agenda that will no doubt accomplish their aim of uniting many liberals and
conservatives -- in alarm and opposition.

Hewlett and West have been at this work for a long time, and theirs
is a potentially interesting collaboration. Hewlett is a mainstream
Democrat who traces her moment of truth on family policy to the harrowing
experience of being pregnant with twins and working frantically as a tenure-track economics professor at Barnard College in the 1970s, and miscarrying
her babies in the process. She was denied tenure anyway, and she bitterly
remembers faculty feminists as among the most resistant to her efforts to
develop family-friendly policies at the university. Her 1985 book "A Lesser
Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation" harshly and often correctly attacked
feminism for failing to defend women as mothers as it attempted to liberate
them from compulsory childbearing.

West, a professor of religion and Afro-American studies at
Harvard, is a socialist and a prolific scholar, the author of more than a
dozen books, including the bestselling "Race Matters." He woke up to the way
American policy thwarts family life when his wife divorced him and moved across the country with their 2-year-old son. He tried to block the
move but found he had few rights, and he spent the boy's childhood trying
to craft a strong father-son bond out of summertime visits and
long-distance phone calls. Now he's trying to develop a fathers' rights
agenda that limits the power of the legal system to deny men access to their
children.

Hewlett and West find common ground with the right in
blaming feminism for elevating the rights of women above the rights of
children, fathers and families. They air those private grievances in the
first third of the book, which is set up as a dialogue alternating West's
story with Hewlett's. West has used this kind of format reasonably well in
two book-long "conversations," with Tikkun founder Michael Lerner on
black-Jewish relations and with scholar bell hooks on gender and other
divisions in the African-American community.

This approach works when there's real dialogue and some difference of opinion. Both are missing in "The War Against Parents." The dialogue section
reads like each spoke separately into a tape recorder and then tried to
edit the results into a conversation. There's no difference, no conflict,
no chemistry. The language alternates between overheated political
rhetoric and the recovery movement's woundology. They talk over and over
about our "parent-hurting" culture. "We parents are so used to being
trampled on, sneered at, or just plain ignored that we often fail to
understand how embattled we are" an early chapter explains. And I thought
I was just tired.

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But the first section of the book begs a big question: Exactly who,
besides feminists, has declared this so-called "war against parents"? The
next section answers resoundingly: everybody. It's a mind-numbing
recitation of all that's wrong with America. I've come to think that the
book-writing left-liberal establishment has a secret software program that
searches multiple databases for bad news and strings it together as prose.
I've read all this before; in fact, I've written it -- the droning
apocalyptic litany of what's wrong with American capitalism. Page after
page of statistics about declining wages, rising male unemployment, single
parenthood, child poverty, corporate downsizing, the lengthening work week,
declining SAT scores, rising juvenile drug use and childhood obesity (yes,
obesity). They all run together so that, after a while, no one fact seems more significant than any other.

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Right-wing readers will enjoy their rants about the decline of
pro-family America, their lament that Wally and Beaver have been replaced by Beavis and Butt-head in American living rooms everywhere. To break up the hard data they throw in news clips, pop culture samplings and bizarre anecdotes that prove we're all going to hell in a handbasket, in a tone reminiscent of conservative culture-cranks like William Bennett and Dinesh D'Souza. Breathlessly, and with an utter lack of humor or perspective, they describe the cultural war against parents: Did you know that on television, a character in "My So-Called Life" talked about wanting to kill her mother,
while the parents on "Party of Five" are all conveniently dead, as are the
moms on "Soul Man" and "The Gregory Hines Show"? The Oscar-winning movie "Shine" comes in for attack for exaggerating the demanding father's role in his
son's mental illness, as do books like "Toxic Parents" and "How to Avoid Your
Parents' Mistakes when You Raise Your Children" for preaching the myth of
"parental incompetence and failure." In music, they're scandalized by the
band Megadeth, which sings that "parents are dickheads," and Marilyn
Manson, whose fans wear T-shirts reading "Kill Your Parents." But they
praise Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama," because even though he complains about
his mother's crack addiction, he acknowledges how much she sacrificed for
him.

I admire this earnest collaboration between a black man and a white
woman, and I want to like their take on race, especially the way they
resist tracing all social ills to the so-called black underclass. The
problem is, as in the case of Tupac, many of their examples of African-American resistance to our "parent-hurting" culture are a little nutty.
They blast white, celebrity single moms Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell as
noxious role models, while praising black singers Whitney Houston and Snoop
Doggy Dogg for staying in notoriously bad marriages. Why even go there?
Their "Dan Quayle Was Right" reasoning, which equates the childbearing choices
of wealthy, middle-aged white women and poor black teenagers, makes no sense
except as a sop to the right. During the very time that Madonna, Rosie and Murphy
Brown were choosing single motherhood, the black teen birth rate was
actually falling, by 23 percent in the last five years. They don't explain
that, or even acknowledge it, but then good news always discombobulates
liberals.

And there are many such sops to the right. They blame welfare for
vastly increasing illegitimacy in the black community, but their only footnote to prove it is a single, little-known study -- and better known research has
found little or no link. (Later they attack welfare reform for threatening
the connection between mothers and children.) They blame feminism and the
media for "disabling dads" and portraying men as "redundant and
expendable."
They cite statistics showing that stepfathers are more likely
to abuse children than natural fathers to conclude "a society that
increasingly relies on substitute parents is one that veers increasingly
toward violence." At the same time, they lambaste the child-welfare
establishment for exaggerating the problem of child abuse, another example
of the ideological schizophrenia that distinguishes "The War Against
Parents."

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Lost in all the handwringing and generalizing are a couple of
interesting chapters. I know it's feminist heresy, but I enjoyed their
examination of what draws men to groups like the Promise Keepers and the Nation
of Islam (which they provocatively link), and I think they correctly
diagnose a spiritual and psychological hunger that secular political and
civic groups haven't addressed and probably can't. I was hoping the
chapter would show how to help men find meaning in family life without
restoring patriarchy, but that was too much to expect of these authors.

The book also features a helpful discussion about the ways public-
and private-sector policy created the good life for so many American
families in the 1950s and '60s. After World War II, tax reform created the
mortgage-interest deduction -- opening home-ownership to a new strata of
American families -- and increased the dependent deduction while reducing
tax rates for married couples. Such moves deliberately privileged
wage-earners with families, creating conditions that would allow couples to
rely on one income to raise children. The private sector backed the notion
of a "family wage" as well, signing generous contracts with American unions
that traded high wages for labor peace and management control over
production and investment decisions. Maybe the most important pro-family
legislation of those years was the G.I. Bill, a windfall that made money
available for returning soldiers to get an education, secure medical
insurance and buy homes.

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Over time these benefits were withdrawn or eroded. Today a
marriage "penalty" means many married couples pay higher taxes than they
would if they were single, and the dependent deduction, which in the late
'40s was worth $3,900 in current dollars, was recently doubled but still
amounts to only $2,000. Add the very real problems of wage erosion and
downsizing, the scarcity of affordable housing and health insurance and
the fact that the United States provides so little in the way of child
care, parental leave and other family support, and it's clear that public
policy today does little to promote family stability, even if the notion of
a "war against parents" is hyperbole.

Hewlett and West are also right to remind us that the social
protections we take for granted today, from child labor laws to the
eight-hour workday, were not the willing concessions of enlightened
employers but the product of fierce political struggle and strategy. They
correctly ask why American parents and workers have acquiesced in the
rollback of support for family life and suggest that a modern social and
political movement could win back some protection from government and
employers.

But their proposal to create a parents' political constituency has
two major flaws, which they grudgingly admit, albeit late in the book.
Parents' concerns differ, in ways that often parallel the fault lines of
American politics, and even if they voted alike, their numbers aren't
large enough to make the parent vote anything close to a majority in this
country. In 1956, 55 percent of eligible voters were parents; in 1996 only
35 percent were. And Hewlett and West note that parents today are much less likely than childless
citizens to vote.

To deal with these obstacles to parent power, West and Hewlett
propose a far-reaching "Parents' Bill of Rights," language they
deliberately borrow from the G.I. Bill of Rights. And here is where the book completely
falls apart. To deal with parents' declining electoral power, which
undermines their political strategy, Hewlett and West propose giving
parents the right to cast votes for their under-18 children. That would
triple the size of the parent vote. It also makes them seem like
crackpots. It's undemocratic and unworkable -- who gets to cast the votes,
mom or dad? And why not extra votes for grandparents, or people who work with
kids?

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The rest of their "Bill of Rights" section makes one wonder why
they spent so much time nodding to conservative critics earlier in the
book. Because when it comes time for recommendations, they're good
liberals: There's very little except rhetoric that would advance the
right's family agenda. They support legal reform
such as "covenant marriages" and a three-year waiting period to make divorce tougher, but other
than that, their solutions are classically liberal: paid parental leave, subsidized
child care organized by the schools, workplace rights to flextime and other
family-friendly schedules, restoring welfare cuts and a public-private wage
subsidy for low-paid workers with kids to bring them above the poverty
line.

Even their attempt to build a fathers' rights agenda has little
muscle behind it -- besides a proposal for a mandatory, compulsory 10-day
paternity leave (that's right, compulsory) to give fathers time to bond
with children, whether they want to or not. The fact that they have to make
it compulsory will probably cheer skeptics of the fathers' rights movement,
because it implicitly acknowledges that the vast majority of men don't take
the parental leave provisions currently available to them.

In the end, the book is a case study of what happens when reformers
attempt to please everybody: West and Hewlett's moral diagnosis will enrage
liberals, their policy prescription will drive away conservatives and the
book leaves us no closer to a family agenda than before they began. But the authors deserve credit
for raising an important question even if they don't answer it: Why do American parents put up
with the sorriest family support of any Western industrial nation?

One reason is that we find it hard to agree on what public family
support should be. Just take child care, one critical issue that ought
to unite parents around a solution but rarely does. Working parents rely
on a broad range of child-care strategies, from split shifts that let them
care for kids themselves to leaving children with grandparents and other
relatives, hiring in-home nannies and patronizing unlicensed neighborhood
"baby-sitters" as well as licensed family day-care homes and centers. A
declining but still sizable minority chooses to keep one parent at home
until kids are in school. So what should the government subsidize: a family
allowance that would let more parents stay home, or work part time?
Programs in schools or large licensed day-care centers, or those sponsored
by churches and community-based associations that often provide care more
affordably? What about expanded, refundable tax credits to maximize
parents' choice of providers? No one has yet done the hard work of
crafting a child-care agenda that would satisfy the largest number of
parents while outraging the fewest, but this is a worthy subject for a
movement.

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Another problem is the fact that child care, parental leave and
related concerns are pressing issues for only a limited number of years.
After that, parents are more likely to identify politically as gun owners,
environmentalists or businesspeople. The answer isn't to give parents
additional votes, it's to increase the number of voters who care about
children, whether they have them or not.

One obstacle to that goal is ideological: People disagree sharply
on private issues like gay marriage, single motherhood, making divorce
tougher and promoting fathers' rights. Pro-family reformers are wasting
their time trying to forge consensus on such issues; today's children will
be senior citizens before that happens. Instead, any movement should focus
on children. Subsidized child care should be available for everybody, not just poor single
mothers, and phased in to meet areas of highest need first. Education funding should be expanded, especially in the early years, accompanied by needed
administrative reform to make sure money goes to effective programs.
Community service and support programs should be provided for teenagers, who have literally
outgrown the infantile social role we've assigned them.

But maybe the toughest barrier to forging pro-family or pro-child
policies is race. It's no accident that the most racially diverse Western nation
has the thinnest safety net on every issue, not just family policy. Racial
divisions split the labor movement, blocking the formation of a
constituency for an expanded welfare state. Later, they brought about the
defeat of another so-called war, the War on Poverty. Today those divisions
are reflected in the fact that most of the states with the most generous
provisions for education have the most homogenous -- read white -- student
populations. Certainly in California it's difficult not to notice that the
state's ranking in per-capita education funding has plummeted as
California's white population has declined. And while many groups of
color have mobilized for programs and policies to help their children, almost no one is articulating a universalist vision for all children.

If there's a war against anyone in this country, it's a war against
children, and until we figure out ways to make people care about kids who
don't look like their own, conditions for American children will remain dire.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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