THE FIRST WHITE HOUSE Conference on Families begins tomorrow in Baltimore. Despite the highly publicized takeover of some state delegations by antiabortionists, and despite dire predictions that they will try to turn the conference into an abortion fight, there is much that has gone on this winter and spring to suggest that the conference delegates want to tackle some of the genuine problems facing American families.
More than 100,000 people participated in state conferences this past year and helped draw up the agenda for the national meetings in three cities this month. What was on thier minds was not ERA or abortion, but government insensitivity to families, the need for quality child care, the enormous stress the economy is putting on families. And it is these issues that conference planners hope the 700 delegates meeting in Baltimore will address during the next three days.
Both at state hearings and in a Gallup poll commissioned by the White House conference, Americans expressed their overwhelming support for certain changes that would improve family life. They want better school, church and community programs to help prepare people for family life. They want the income tax penalty on married couples removed. They want flex-time, job sharing part-time work -- changes in the work place -- that could improve family life. And they want governments, corporations and institutions to look at how their policies and practices affect the families with which they deal.
"More than half of the states have recommended that governments and private corporations take a look at flextime and child care," says conference executive director John L. Carr. "What is interesting to me is that a lot of recommendations talked about allowing families to pick the kind of child care they need. It is not a call for universal child care at all. They're talking about tax credits for businesses that provide child care on site, tax credits for families that use child care, as well as government-supported centers. The emphasis that comes through on the state recommendations is that it ought to be the family's choice.
"There's tremendous interest in how our social service and health programs favor institutional care over home care. If my mother had a stroke and I put her into a nursing home, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the cost. If I take her into my own home and hire part-time nursing care, the government wouldn't pay a dime.
"Our sense, and it will be tested in Baltimore, is that there are lots of issues that cross traditional ideological lines and the concern is whether the commentators in the media will see those as well as the potentially controversial issues."
Carr says the response to the state hearings was five times greater than they had expected. "I think we really touched a nerve. I think a lot of people know now that he have tax laws, health laws and welfare requirements that unintentionally harm families."
These are the kinds of laws that have attracted the attention of the George Washington University Family Impact Seminar, founded in 1976 to find ways of making the government more aware of how its policies affect families. In Baltimore, the seminar will recommend to the conference that it endorse the concept of family impact statements. The idea is that laws and corporate and institutional policies should be assessed to find out what impact they would have on families, much the way we now assess the impact proposed projects will have on the environment.
Sid Johnson, director of the seminar and a member of the national advisory board of the White House conference, says family impact statements can "serve as a lens through which to look at a whole range of proposals -- health insurance, tax amendements, foster care, changes in flextime and part-time opportunities for civil servants. Social Security taxing and benefit policies as they affect two-earner families. It can be a kind of continuing proxy for the White House conference, which has identified government insensitivity to families as the number one concern." Furthermore, he says, this approach to public and corporate policies "has the advantage of not costing $2 billion."
"We recommend at the state, local and national levels that commissions for families be established, drawing people from all walks of life, that would have a mandate for three or four years to do family impact analysis on three or four policies each year. We suggest that these commissions expire at some point, unless the executive or legislature found them useful and wanted to continue them. We recommend that their analysis be purely advisory.
"We also suggest that many organizations, both private and public, do self-assessment on how their policies affect families. That could be a croporation looking at personnel policies, like leave policies, transfer policies, part-time, flextime opportunities, etc. It could be a hospital examining whether, for example, it should provide sleeping-in facilities for parents of very young patients or whether they should re-examine their visiting hour policies. In many cases, children under age 12 cannot visit adult wards. That's an issue that can be questioned when parents and grandparents are hospitalized a long time.
"Schools can look at the timing of their parent-teacher conferences and whether they reflect the realities of family life today. Are they only scheduled from 3 to 5 in the afternoon," which is inconvenient for families where both parents work or there is only one parent?
The Family Impact Seminar is not talking about another federal bureaucracy, and it is not talking about a single national family policy with a single set of standards for family life. Rather, it is talking about a new approach, about capitalizing on our renewed concern for the welfare of American families. It is recommending that governments, corporations and organizations like the PTA that are concerned with family life, take a hard look at how they can alter their policies and practices to improve family life.
Family impact statements might cause a little more paperwork, but as Johnson says, they "can serve to be an outgoing reminder that there ever was a White House Conference on Families."
If the upcoming conferences can give family impact statements the same currency in our thinking that we give enviornmental impact statements, it will have been a success.