Parents Of The World, Unite

A national organization aims to mobilize moms and dads

Millions of Americans share common ground rooted in a singular and life-changing experience. Chances are good, in fact, that you're one of them. But this massive minority has no real political voice and no legislative agenda. Can they unite?

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett thinks it's about time they did. Her fledgling National Parents Assn. (NPA) seeks to organize the nation's 62 million parents of children under the age of 18 who, she says, face stressful lives with little cultural or social support from business and government. "Parenting is the ultimate nonmarket activity," she observes. "We've had a hard time giving it stature and standing."

CONSPIRACY. In their new book, The War Against Parents (Houghton Mifflin), Hewlett and Cornel West, professor of philosophy of religion and member of the African-American studies department at Harvard University, describe the ways in which they believe parents are conspired against. It starts with the time and money crunch wrought by inflexible work hours, insufficient and unpaid family leave, a marriage tax penalty, and for some, low wages. It extends deep into popular culture, which often denigrates parents and parenting in vapid sitcoms, among other arenas. The role of fathers has been especially underrated and misunderstood, they contend.

Recalling the 1944 GI Bill of Rights, which helped launch a period of postwar growth by giving returning military veterans financial and educational aid, Hewlett and West propose a "parents' bill of rights" (table, page 60). It would provide generous allowances for families--from 24-week paid parenting leaves to subsidies for low-wage workers. They urge a lengthening of the school day and the school year to better reflect a changing society in which the majority of families are dual earners.

To help make it all happen, Hewlett and West have created the national organization with nearly 9,000 members in six states. Working with school boards and businesses and at the local, state, and federal levels, the NPA will mobilize parents across the political and racial spectrum and eventually do for parents what the American Association of Retired Persons has done for seniors, Hewlett and West hope. The NPA, headquartered in New York City, has membership dues of $25 a year.

Hewlett, 51, gave birth to her fourth child just over a year ago, and also has a stepchild. West, 45, has a 20-year-old son. They emphasize that they don't want parents to be viewed as yet another interest group. "Nonparents have a stake in all citizens of the future ending up in good shape," Hewlett says. Parents invest upwards of $150,000 to raise a child, she notes, but many of that child's contributions as an adult may accrue to society at large.

Hewlett's and West's concerns are not unfamiliar, of course: For all their lack of explicit representation, parents have a host of surrogate advocates. Conservative politicians and legislators, recently joined by politicos of nearly all stripes, have long embraced the fuzzy cause of family values. Women's groups, children's advocates, and research organizations have long fashioned agendas to help children and families. The National Partnership for Women & Families--formerly the Women's Legal Defense Fund--did pioneering work 14 years ago to promote family-leave legislation that finally became law in 1993; it now is working to expand coverage to smaller companies and helping some states find new ways to fund family leave. The Children's Defense Fund is pushing an initiative to make child care more affordable and more widely available.

Such groups believe a parents' movement would only complement their efforts. "Rarely before in American history have we expected parents to do this challenging job totally on their own as a private matter," observes Wendy Lazarus, director of the Children's Partnership, a Santa Monica (Calif.) non-profit, nonpartisan group that researches children's issues. "We need to once again establish that parents are doing something that is of civic value."

"LIVING WAGE." Numerous research groups churn out ever more compelling data confirming the demands of parenthood in the two-income-family era. On Apr. 15, the Work & Families Institute released a major study on the changing workforce in America. Among its key findings: Employed married fathers spend more time with their children than fathers did 20 years ago, while mothers spend about the same amount--but 70% of all parents feel they do not have enough time with their children.

Hewlett and West's proposals are ambitious. Providing wage subsidies to guarantee all workers a "living wage" of $7.00 or so an hour--a proposal based on work by Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps--would cost $100 billion a year initially. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who hopes to introduce an "income-protected leave" bill at the beginning of the next session of Congress, concedes that mandating paid time off for new parents will be a tough battle.

The authors know that their proposals are expensive. But their parents' bill of rights is, they say, a starting point, something to be refined and debated as parents around the country unite to make schools, communities, businesses, and government more responsive. Hewlett and West are on a mission--a mission to give parents a voice. Given full expression, that voice could one day prove the loudest and most powerful in the nation.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.