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Family politics

How Democrats can reclaim family values and the White House

By Erica Etelson

If any of the Democratic presidential contenders are to be part of a winning ticket in 2008, they will have to make room on their legislative agenda for something other than figuring out how not to stay the course in Iraq. Thanks to the emergence of a progressive parenthood movement, the one set of issues that could make or break any presidential bid is family policy.

Ever since the Christian Right swept Reagan into office on a family values platform only a Fundamentalist mother could love, Republican presidents have played the role of what University of California linguist George Lakoff calls the "Strict Father." In "Don't Think of an Elephant"(2004), a book that quickly became required reading for progressives, Lakoff laid out the prototypical conservative voter's Strict Father worldview in contrast to the "Nurturant Parent" model most liberals favor. The Strict Father is a supposedly benevolent dictator who, like many authoritarian fathers, refuses to coddle his kids/welfare dependents and harshly punishes them when they step out of line -- all, of course, "for their own good."

Republican family values, as articulated by a series of Strict Father presidents and their evangelical backers, are a rhetorical stockpile of poisonous platitudes about gay marriage, "broken" families and single and working mothers. A Democratic candidate who embodies the Nurturant Parent prototype -- the compassionate, accepting and supportive parent many of us never had -- can strip the GOP of the family values mantel and lay bare its hypocrisy.  Outfitted in a real family values agenda, the smartly attired Democrat will look good to any voter in need of a little TLC.

As the mid-term election revealed, voters are fed up with the Strict Father whose arrogant bullheadedness got us mired in Iraq and whose callous neglect left us to molder in New Orleans. A wannabe demagogue whose belief that he rules by divine right emboldens him to scapegoat and attack convenient targets like immigrants and gays. An indifferent parent who, under the guise of "tough love," stands idly by while his children fail to pull themselves up by their frayed bootstraps.

A nascent parents movement is poised to channel discontent with patriarchal boors into legislative victories and electoral upsets. For the first time since the Progressive Era, progressive parents are articulating a comprehensive pro-family agenda built on the premise that the round-the-clock work of caregivers is of extreme social importance. Their hard-boiled demands reflect the often harsh realities of modern parenthood -- the time bind of working parents, the scarcity of affordable, high-quality childcare, the inability of most new parents to afford to stay home after their two weeks (if that) of paid sick leave runs out, the impossibility of subsisting on minimum wage paychecks and paltry welfare payments, and the ever present threat of sinking into destitution if unemployment or uninsured illness strikes. They are calling for a battery of federal programs that would provide struggling families with some long overdue assistance.

One of the leaders of this growing movement is MomsRising.org, a spin-off of MoveOn.org that made its virtual debut this past Mother's Day and quickly enlisted 90,000 members to join in pressing for childcare subsidies, paid family leave, health care for uninsured kids, flex-time and part-time work schedules for working parents and equal treatment of job applicants and employees who happen to be mothers. MomsRising already counts Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton among its supporters -- last September, they sponsored a screening of "The Motherhood Manifesto," a DVD created by MomsRising as an organizing tool, and committed themselves to working to implement many of MomsRising's demands.

They will find a convenient legislative handle in the aptly named Family and Workplace Balancing Act sponsored by Congressperson Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). This legislation would provide paid family leave, increased funding for childcare and after-school programs, incentives for businesses to offer employees flex-time schedules, and universal pre-school. An earlier version of the bill had 59 co-sponsors, including House Speaker and mother of five Nancy Pelosi, but languished in subcommittee. MomsRising.org and the National Organization for Women are strong proponents of the Balancing Act, and it is bound to attract the support of organized labor, child advocacy groups and civil rights organizations when it is reintroduced this term.

Other family friendly legislative initiatives pepper the congressional docket: In March, Senator Kennedy (D-MA) and Congresswoman DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Healthy Families Act (S-910/HR-1542), which would guarantee most private sector workers the right to seven days paid leave when they or a family member are sick. And Congresswoman Maloney (D-NY) has introduced a bill that would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide wage replacement for some leave-takers (HR -1369). Meanwhile, several state legislatures are looking for ways to provide paid leave and universal preschool to their residents.

Paid family leave and childcare subsidies are political no-brainers. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 89 percent of parents of young children and 82 percent of all employees between the ages of 18 and 34 support paid family leave. In a 2001 survey by Public Agenda, 85 percent of adults said they favored increased federal spending on childcare for low-income families. Of course, as any new parent can tell you, caring for an infant is as physically and emotionally draining an endeavor as it is -- potentially -- rewarding. In a family-friendly society, parents would have the choice of staying home themselves or leaving their babes in the hands of qualified, affectionate caregivers. The makeshift alternatives that poor and middle-class parents in our family-averse society must craft for themselves are simply unacceptable.

Though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows some employees to take twelve weeks of unpaid leave to stay home with a new child, most employees simply cannot afford to take advantage of this so-called benefit. When the AFL-CIO surveyed its female members in 2000, they found that only 13 percent of women with family incomes under $20,000 and 22 percent with family incomes over $75,000 took FMLA leave after childbirth. Most cited unaffordability as the single biggest reason for not staying home.

Whether they stay home for a few months or not, most parents eventually return to work, at which point they and their wee ones face the wacky and unwonderful world of daycare.  Twelve million young children are in childcare for a good part of the week, and all but the most affluent parents struggle to pay for it. The most recent survey of annual childcare costs found that child care for four year olds ranges from a low average of $3016 in Alabama to a high of $8985 in New Jersey, with costs as high as $13, 480 for infants in some areas, more than the cost of a year at a state university. According to the Children's Defense Fund, only one in seven children eligible for government childcare assistance actually gets it -- the rest languish on long waiting lists for under-funded programs.

A recent study by the Families and Work Institute rated only one in seven daycare centers as "good," and the rest mediocre or poor, with care for infants and toddlers the worst of all. The ratings for family daycare were even more dismaying, with only nine percent making the "good" list. Clearly, the sorry state of childcare in this country is an issue crying out for attention.

For any Democratic nominee, embracing a real family values agenda would be a strategically smart move -- every GOP presidential candidate since Reagan has successfully lured droves of traditionally Democratic voters by exploiting their social conservatism in the name of family values. A Democratic contender who promises to deliver tangible benefits to beleaguered families would win the support of many of the nation's 65 million parents (who comprise more than a third of eligible voters).

Americans are primed for a Nurturant Parent to take charge. We want a leader who actually cares about our well-being, who understands that real family values center around care and support, not indifference and hostility. We want mommy, though a kind and sensitive daddy will do.

Often, children who are overpowered by authoritarian parents spend their lives idealizing their Strict Fathers. For some, awareness of their parents' shortcomings begins to dawn during adolescence, and this realization can become a source of strength and wisdom when they recognize that the rigid values of their upbringing are not compatible with the future they wish to create. As the visceral memory of 9/11 loses its edge and the death toll in Iraq mounts, Americans voters are lurching toward a constructive adolescent rebellion, a moment of epiphany in which the Strict Father's flaws are glaringly apparent. Now that the limelight that has surrounded the New Right for more than a quarter century grows dim, look stage left for the entrance of the Strict Father's rival for power.

Mmo : may 2007

Erica Etelson is a stay-at-home-and-write mother and recovering attorney. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian and LA Times.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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