Childless adults ask, 'Why am I minding the kids?'

THE BABY BOON: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless By Elinor Burkett The Free Press 272 pp., $25

Elinor Burkett belongs to the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States - childless adults. But during the 1996 presidential campaign, as Bob Dole and Bill Clinton proposed initiatives to ease the burden on "working families," she came to a sobering conclusion: The catchphrase didn't include her. She had been written out of the political equation.

As businesses scrambled to become "family-friendly," Burkett saw childless workers increasingly excluded and exploited. Employers, she charges, violate the principle of equal treatment when they offer parents perks such as flextime, family leave, paid child care, and work breaks for pumping breast milk.

Now, Burkett has channeled her indignation into a provocative book, "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless." Nonparents, she argues, occupy an "inferior station" in America. They see themselves as second-class citizens, "demeaned and discarded."

With 13 million childless adults over the age of 40 in the US, Burkett anticipates a demographic clash between parents and nonparents, pitting the rights of childless workers against the responsibilities of working parents. The childless, she warns, are "revving up for a fight." She adds, "A sleeping giant has begun to stir." Already Burkett finds tempers flaring, lawsuits being filed, and childless workers, women in particular, fighting for their rights.

They are tired of being asked to cover for colleagues with child-care problems. They are weary of snide comments about DINKS - dual-income, no kids. And they are fed up with lower tax rates and special privileges granted to those who reproduce.

"Where there is privilege for some, there will inevitably be unprivilege for others," Burkett writes. By her calculation, the past decade has seen the greatest redistribution of wealth since the War on Poverty. This time the transfer has gone from nonparents to parents in the form of tax credits, child-care benefits, and flextime policies. Child tax breaks passed in 1997 totaled more than $5 billion a year. And President Clinton's proposed tax credit for stay-at-home mothers will cost $1.3 billion over five years.

Yet the damage, as Burkett measures it, goes beyond flattened wallets for the childless and a crisis of morale. If the government's goal is truly the well-being of children, she asks, why is it slashing welfare, cutting food stamps, and withdrawing financial aid from inner-city school programs? She proposes ending subsidies to parents earning $60,000 or more a year and redirecting funds to "make sure that every kid in the nation has enough food, a decent education, [and] a safe place to live."

Burkett dreads the prospect of "parenting wars," complete with lawsuits against family-friendly corporations, skirmishes between parents and nonparents over school property taxes, and the division of Americans into new warring factions.

Yet as Burkett points out, alternatives to cultural warfare do exist. Rather than narrow "family-friendly" benefits, companies can offer "worker-friendly" policies and cafeteria-style benefits packages that give everyone a measure of flexibility.

What else do Burkett and other childless adults want? They want respect. They want an end to tax cuts that subsidize parenting and an end to workplace benefits that mock the principle of equal pay for equal work. They also want Americans to "stop playing the 'who makes a more valuable contribution to society' game."

Some readers may find Burkett's message and her remedies to eliminate parental entitlements unnecessarily harsh. Finding solutions that treat all groups fairly, regardless of family status, will not be easy. But if Burkett's well-reasoned warnings and suggestions can spark a national discussion, they could help to head off the divisiveness she and others seek to avoid. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that it has taken this long for someone to speak out on a subject that affects so many.

* Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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