LOS ANGELES — Late one night in 1992, when Sylvia Ann Hewlett appeared on Larry King's radio show to talk about American families, a young father in Phoenix called to tell a sad story.
Gary explained that he and his wife were parents of a three-week-old daughter. Although both worked full time, he as a maintenance man, she as a checkout clerk, their combined income was only $23,000. Neither qualified for health insurance or parental leave. And the only child care they could afford was unlicensed family day care, run by two elderly women with 18 babies and toddlers to watch over.
"Dogs and cats have a better deal," Gary said, explaining that kennels are tightly regulated and must meet standards of cleanliness and care. Why, he wondered bitterly, is it so difficult for hardworking parents to do the right thing for their children?
That question haunted Dr. Hewlett, an economist and a long-time advocate for families. It also eventually served as one catalyst for her new book, "The War Against Parents" (Houghton Mifflin), written with Cornel West, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Harvard University.
"The unsung heroes and heroines, those who nurture children, feel profoundly demoralized," Hewlett says.
This distress has its roots in what Professor West calls "a silent, invisible, and undeclared war" that makes childrearing an uphill climb for many of the nation's 62 million parents. Hewlett and West see America as a society that pays lip service to abstract family values but reneges on its obligation to offer tangible economic and community support to families.
West and Hewlett identify culprits on three fronts. The first is managerial greed in the workplace that leaves employees overworked, underpaid, and lacking enough time with their children. The second involves a government "bitterly hostile" to parents, creating tax and housing policies that fail to give families the economic support they received in the 1950s when, as Hewlett puts it, "the biggest tax shelter in this country was a child." The third attack on families stems from what West calls "a poisonous popular culture," sending forth what he sees as a flood of entertainment programs that frequently cast parents as "ineffectual fools."
Hewlett and West draw some of their findings from a first-ever national survey of parents. They also spent three years criss-crossing the country, talking to parents. They view their professional pairing of a white woman and a black man as emblematic of the broad-based work to be done to help families - work that cuts across race, gender, and class divisions.
Between 1989 and 1997, the authors report, families with children experienced a 3-percent drop in income. In 6 million families, two adults hold four jobs to stay afloat. Ninety percent of parents in their poll cite a time crunch as "the worst thing in their lives." These parents rank wage and tax squeezes as their second most worrisome problem.
Noting that horses receive more tax breaks than children, Hewlett says, "If you own a horse, you can deduct from your tax bill the cost of food, stabling, training, vet and stud services, transportation to and from horse shows, insurance, and a host of other expenses." Comparing that with rearing children, she adds, "Can a parent deduct from his or her tax bill the cost of a child's food, housing, medical care, or preschool education? Of course not."
Now West and Hewlett are urging beleaguered parents to launch a counterattack, mobilizing their voices and votes to improve economic and cultural conditions for families. To that end, they have drawn up a Parents' Bill of Rights, a blueprint for "parent empowerment" and a call for change.
Among its many provisions, some practical, others idealistic, the manifesto includes such options as paid parenting leave and tax incentives for companies that offer flexible hours and telecommuting. It proposes eliminating the marriage penalty in tax codes and creating tax credits and subsidies for at-home parents. It also calls for mortgage subsidies to make home ownership possible for more young families. In addition, the authors suggest increased government support for public broadcasting, as well as parental involvement in monitoring television.
But will busy parents take time to fight back?
Emphatically yes, insists Hewlett. Just a week after the book's publication last month, she says, more than 1,000 parents called to join the National Parenting Association (800-709-8795), a fledgling group modeled after the American Association of Retired Persons.
"One of the secrets of AARP is that you don't attend meetings," says Hewlett, one of the association's founders.
West and Hewlett admit that their broad-based proposals will require a "tremendous infusion of funds." But West offers a context for those expenditures. Noting that President Clinton frequently talks about "good times for the nation," West says, "Good times, yes, in terms of relative peace and relative prosperity. We've got surpluses. But the question is, Who are we as a people? What are our priorities in relation to our young people and our future? These questions have weight and gravity."
Adds Hewlett, "So much of the public agenda gets defined by how we view children. This is a healing agenda."