When it comes to devising family policy, conservatives and liberals are, as George Bernard Shaw said of England and America, "separated by the same language."
Both insist upon "pro-family" policies, but only rarely do they seem to mean the same thing. Conservatives imply that the problems confronting American families have their origins in the insistence of mothers on joining the work force and that the cure lies in finding ways to keep them at home. Liberals tend to bristle at the enshrinement of the "Ozzie and Harriet" model, because it runs counter to their notions of gender equality, because economic reality often requires both parents to work and because in a growing number of households, mom is the only parent on the scene.
The common-sense middle ground has rarely been stated more succinctly than in "Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s," a recent publication of the Progressive Policy Institute. What is needed, say the authors of this insightful monograph, is "a progressive child-centered family policy that both acknowledges new realities and affirms enduring values; a policy that recognizes that two-earner families are frequently necessary -- and that two-parent families are usually best."
The 40-page document is chock-full of common sense, both in its discussion of the impact on children of the social and economic conditions in which today's families find themselves and in its proposals for a government policy that might help.
As for the former: "Sharply rising rates of divorce, unwed mothers and runaway fathers do not represent 'alternative lifestyles.' They are rather patterns of adult behavior with profoundly negative consequences for children. ...
"Families have primary responsibility for instilling traits such as discipline, ambition, respect for the law and respect for others -- a responsibility that cannot be discharged as effectively by auxiliary social institutions such as public schools."
The need, say authors Elaine Ciulla Kamarck and William A. Galston, is for "pro-family" policies that would provide critical resources for families raising children -- particularly single-parent families -- and reduce the pressures that contribute to family breakup in the first place. These recommended policies include such progressive ideas "family friendly" workplaces and a "guaranteed working wage" to ensure that no family with a full-time worker would have to live in poverty, and such conservative notions as divorce-law reform and laws to promote parental responsibility.
The heart of the proposal, though, is a major increase in the personal income exemption for children, from the current $2,000 to between $6,000 and $7,500 -- much nearer the actual cost of raising young children.
But since an across-the-board increase of that magnitude would be "an extraordinarily expensive proposition" -- $43 billion in 1990 -- the monograph recommends targeting the increase in two ways.
First, it would apply only to young children. "The day care crisis is, after all, a crisis that is most acute for preschool children. ... As children get older (and certainly by the time of elementary school) the need for one-on-one care diminishes, the children spend a portion of their day in school, and before- and after-school day care programs become economically feasible for most parents and socially as well as educationally useful for children." Thus for all except young children, the exemption would be kept at its current level.
Second, the proposal would scale down the exemption even for young children as family income increases. For families earning $64,000 per year or more (double the median income) only the current $2,000 exemption would apply.
But as much as increasing the disposable income of families would help, we also need to find ways to discourage the breakup (or nonformation) of two-parent households. It may not be true that single parents cannot instill in their children the self-esteem, study habits, language skills and moral values that are necessary for success, but it is undeniable that, in the overwhelming number of cases, these things are more easily accomplished when both parents are involved. At the very least, the government can establish policies that avoid undermining the two-parent family.
Kamarck and Galston tell us what we already know, that "a stable, two-parent family is an American child's best protection against poverty" and that child's best hope for economic, academic and mental health.