Public policy specialists have discovered a bold new avenue toward helping the nation's increasingly beleaguered children. It's called The Family.

What's new about this insight is that the policy experts, from the political left to the right, are focusing on how the policies of government and business over the last three decades have made it harder for parents to rear children. They argue that any new programs for children need to strengthen the two-parent family.

That argument is at the heart of a new report to be issued today by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank with close ties to centrist Democrats. Entitled "Putting Children First," the report scores liberals and conservatives alike for failing to address the strains on family life.

"Traditional conservative support for families is largely rhetorical," write Elaine Ciulla Kamarck and William R. Galston, the principal authors, in their introduction to the report. "Their disregard for the new economic realities engenders a policy of unresponsive neglect -- expressed, for example, in President Bush's misguided veto of the Family Leave Act.

"Conversely," they go on, "traditional liberals' unwillingness to acknowledge that intact two-parent families are the most effective units for raising children has led them into a series of policy cul-de-sacs."

Their conclusion: "Public programs cannot substitute for healthy families and should not try. . . . Given all the money in the world, government programs will not be able to instill self-esteem, good study habits, advanced language skills or sound moral values in children as effectively as can strong families."

The report reflects a growing consensus -- it includes individuals as politically diverse as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- that government policies, especially on taxation, have placed a growing burden on families with children. The consensus rests on a fundamental assumption: When it comes to influencing a child's chances in life, no institution matters as much as the family.

The centerpiece of the Kamarck-Galston report is a call to increase the personal income tax exemption for children from $2,000 per dependent to at least $6,000 and perhaps $7,500. They also call for cutting Social Security taxes, which hit especially hard at middle-income familes.

Kamarck and Galston note that while their proposed increase in the dependent exemption is large, it would only restore its value in real dollars to what it was in 1948. Then, they note that a family of four at a median income level paid "a minuscule" 0.3 percent of its income in federal taxes. Today, a family at median income pays 9.1 percent.

Since a $6,000 exemption for every dependent would cost the government about $43 billion annually, Kamarck and Galston suggest that it be given initially only for children under age 4, which would cut the cost to $10 billion. They argue that families of very young children need the money most, since it is in the earliest years that children need the most attention and when at least one parent usually wants to stay home.

To further cut the cost of the change, they say it could be limited to families earning less than $64,000 a year, which is twice the median income. To help working poor families who pay little or nothing in federal taxes, they urge a "guaranteed working wage" through the Earned Income Tax Credit to raise all families with at least one working parent above the poverty level.

If government has failed to respond to the pressure on families, Kamarck and Galston also argue that the private sector likewise has been slow to act. They urge that companies establish family leave and flexible-time policies, provide care for sick children, offer parents time off to attend conferences with teachers and make it easier for employees who can do so to work at home.

In what is likely to be one of its most controversial proposals, the report suggests that "no fault" divorce laws be reconsidered and that more be done to collect child support from absent parents, usually the fathers.

They argue that while "no fault" divorce laws have been beneficial to couples without children, they have disproportionately harmed children and mothers. Kamarck and Galston urge that divorce laws "be reformed to take into account the cost of motherhood to women's earnings capacity."

They also urge that child support programs be federalized. "Payments," they say, "would be collected by employers, just like Social Security {taxes}, and remitted to the federal government, which would then send this money directly to the custodial parent."

In addition, Kamarck and Galston suggest that since the impact of divorce is especially severe on children, the law provide for "braking mechanisms" in cases where children are involved "that require parents contemplating divorce to pause for reflection." They argue that a nine-month waiting period would be reasonable.

Kamarck and Galston said that while their approach to family policy is "distinctly non-bureaucratic," it is "not cheap." But they argued that if government spent its money "alleviating economic stresses brought on by raising children," families themselves would be freer to do what government cannot do: "provide the kind of nurturance that children, particularly young children, need."